Trouble in paradise as power struggle grips Maldives

(AFP) – To honeymooners lounging on its sparkling sands, the Maldives may appear the closest thing to paradise on earth.

But away from the beaches, a gripping but vicious power struggle is playing out, which observers say has yet to run its course and in which outsiders show little inclination to intervene.

The vice-president is behind bars over claims he tried to blow up his boss on his speedboat, joining the island’s first democratically-elected leader.

The president’s election running mate is on the run, and the presidential spokesman was sacked last week.

Synonymous with the jet-set, the Maldives is perhaps the ideal setting for a drama with storylines fit for a Dallas-stye soap opera and a cast including George Clooney’s wife Amal and rival lawyer Cherie Blair, wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Largely operating behind the scenes is the patriarchal figure of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a 77-year-old former ruler who critics say is using his half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, as a proxy president.

"What we are seeing today is the return of the dictator through his half-brother," said opposition Maldivian Democratic Party spokesman Hamid Abdul Ghafoor.

Gayoom ruled with an iron fist for 30 years before losing the island’s first genuine elections to MDP leader and one-time prisoner Mohammed Nasheed.

Barely three years later, climate activist Nasheed was toppled when security chiefs and judges appointed by Gayoom revolted against attempted reforms.

Since then, observers say Gayoom’s clan has steadily re-exerted control, flattening anyone in its way.

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– Behind bars –

When Nasheed attempted a comeback in 2013, the election was twice postponed before Yameen won a controversial run-off.

Nasheed was subsequently jailed for 13 years for "terrorism" related to the stand-off that ended in his ouster.

Allies have also run into trouble, with Vice President Ahmed Adeeb arrested last week for treason over the speedboat explosion that left Yameen unscathed but injured the first lady.

Adeeb’s predecessor Mohamed Jameel was sacked in July for treason while travelling in South-East Asia. He has yet to return home.

Then defence minister Mohamed Nazim was jailed in March for trying to topple the government.

"Gayoom and Yameen got together to keep Nasheed out of power and they succeeded. Yameen is now moving to eliminate any potential challenge," said a Western diplomatic source.

"There’s bad blood within the ruling clan, but they have united to keep others out. We have not seen the end of the purge."

But Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon, who is Gayoom’s daughter and Yameen’s niece, "strongly denied" her uncle was purging his rivals.

– ‘Upholding the law’ –

"It is a question to do with upholding the law and second his expectations when it comes to delivery," she told AFP.

Amal Clooney, who is trying to get Nasheed’s sentence overturned, has described the human rights situation as "deteriorating day by day".

Muslim-majority Maldives markets itself as the "sunny side of life", turning a blind eye to holidaymakers’ marital status and letting them drink alcohol.

But it is a different story for the local population who can be flogged for having sex outside marriage.

A mother-of-five was sentenced to death by stoning earlier this month for adultery, although the Supreme Court later overturned the punishment.

As part of efforts to improve its image, the government hired Cherie Blair, who denounced Clooney’s call for sanctions as "inappropriate and unjustified" while arguing Nasheed’s trial followed due process.

The UN has criticised "serious flaws" in the trial and sentencing, which came less than three weeks after his arrest, and US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of "troubling signs" for Maldivian democracy.

After Nasheed’s arrest, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shelved plans to visit the Maldives in what was interpreted as a rebuke to Yameen.

But pressure is muted, with Modi wary of driving the Maldives into the arms of China, which is seeking strategic alliances in India’s backyard.

"Kerry did take note but the rest of the world has other things to worry about," said Gareth Price of the London-based think-tank Chatham House.

Price said Yameen was "testing the limits" of the international community’s patience, but added that India’s hands were tied by its reluctance to breach its principle of non-interference.

Tourism, the economy’s mainstay, is booming, generating $2.3 billion in 2013.

Holidaymakers paying top dollar to relax on one of 1,192 atolls are usually whisked away by seaplane or boat, bypassing the crowded island capital Male, where extra police have been deployed since Adeeb’s arrest. (COLOMBO, Oct 29, 201)

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