President Mohamed Nasheeds (photo: Mauroof Khaleel)
Mohammad Nasheed, a former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, resigned today as President of Maldives. He was the first democratically elected President of the country, following decades of dictatorship in the country. He was instrumental in highlighting the case for action against climate change, going so far as to hold a cabinet meeting underwater.
His supporters and media reports are stating that it was basically a coup by the military and opposition supporters.
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Maldives cabinet holding an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight climate change's risk to the country.
Maldives is the only country I know where the leader is a former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. I was planning on using that fact to write how Maldives was a model of how a country could transition from one that was strewn with human rights abuses to one that upholds human rights and the rule of law. Well…the situation in the country is not as rosy as I was hoping. In fact, its political leaders will need to use a lot of deftness to avoid bloodshed.
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Jennifer with her Amnesty action
In the middle of all the interest in the American election, there was an election halfway around the world last week that got me thinking about a brave young woman from the Maldives named Jennifer Latheef.
I met her at an Amnesty meeting two years ago where she spoke at a panel of former prisoners of conscience. I didn’t know where the Maldives were or anything about the islands, other than they are a popular resort for celeb weddings. (I’m sure I’m not alone — here’s the google map link.)
It was one of those meetings that Amnesty International makes possible that can change a volunteer’s outlook on life. Jennifer’s story was that behind the facade of a resort island, the Maldives is run by a dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who stands by passively as many on the island become addicted to drugs. Political opposition is treated as a crime. Her father was jailed, and so was she. (She was convicted on terrorism charges in 2005 after she participated in a peaceful street demonstration and sentenced to 10 years in jail.) Amnesty International USA adopted her as a special focus case, and she was released in 2007. She particularly credited Amnesty’s work in her release. (Read about her case in Amnesty magazine here.)
Once released, she continued her work to bring human rights to the Maldives. Anyone who met her at the Amnesty conference understood that given her bravery and determination, the threat of jail wouldn’t deter her. And now, the news brings a surprise that indicates that her work has borne fruit.
In late October, a coalition of opposition groups defeated the ruling party and threw Gayoom out of power for the first time in three decades. The Maldives being so small, the news received the scantiest of mentions in even the largest of the newspapers. However, we are so used to dictators using any methods to remain in power that we may forget to celebrate when human rights and democracy activists such as Jennifer actually achieve that result peacefully. But celebrate we should.
And we should remember one value of Amnesty International is that it reminds us that human rights are important even halfway around the world and on the smallest of islands with the smallest of populations — even if many of us can’t find it on the map.