x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Maldives' Mohamed Nasheed: dissident to president

Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives, was a former political prisoner who rose from grassroots activism and journalism.

MALE // Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives, was a former political prisoner who rose from grassroots activism and journalism.

Mr Nasheed, 44, who was educated in Sri Lanka and Britain, came to power after building a pro-democracy movement with local and foreign support in opposition to the 30-year autocratic rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Mr Gayoom, Asia's longest-serving leader, ruled the holiday paradise unchallenged for three decades between 1978 and 2008 and repeatedly threw Mr Nasheed in jail during a six-year period.

Mr Nasheed said he spent 18 months in solitary confinement as his jailers tried to get him to confess to seeking to "overthrow" the state.

The media-savvy father of two daughters and holder of a degree in maritime engineering was at one point an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.

He formed his Maldivian Democratic Party in exile only to return home to a hero's welcome, sweeping 54 per cent of the vote in the 2008 elections whose results brought people into the streets dancing and cheering.

Mr Nasheed said after the election that he had "forgiven my jailers, the torturers" and that he wanted Mr Gayoom "to grow old here" in the Maldives, saying it was "a test of our democracy how we treat" the former dictator.

The president, who was forced out yesterday by a police mutiny and three weeks of street protests by the opposition, used his mandate to build a reputation internationally as a campaigner against climate change.

In 2009, Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting in an effort to press the world to cap carbon emissions that cause global warming, which will lead to rising sea levels which threaten low-lying countries such as the Maldives.

He also shocked observers when he announced he wanted to buy a new homeland to relocate the population of his country, naming India, Sri Lanka and Australia as potential destinations.

The son of a businessman frequently joked about having a "sinking feeling" as he highlighted a potentially watery future for the 1,200 islands that compose the Maldives.

But the environmental stunts had little effect locally in a country whose 300,000 Sunni population face more immediate concerns.

Problems such as high youth unemployment, a lack of housing on the cramped capital island Male, widespread drug use and a rise in Islamist fundamentalism fuelled discontent against Mr Nasheed.