Nov 1, 2008

Personality - Nasheed;'Anni' heralds new era in Maldives

Olivia Lang in Male

The man who has won the election to become the next president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, is arguably the country's most famous political activist.

He has now also earned a place in the history books as the person who brought an end to the 30-year rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom - Asia's longest serving leader.

Mr Nasheed - a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience - is known locally as Anni. He has been a constant critic of the regime of Mr Gayoom over the years and has spent long periods in jail for his political activities.

To his supporters Mr Nasheed is a latter day Nelson Mandela, overcoming the hardships of prison to secure an inspirational election win against the odds.

But his critics say that he has little policy-making experience beyond his direct action campaigns against the government.

His more strident detractors during the campaign accused him of trying to spread Christianity to the Islamic nation.

They argued that Mr Nasheed - a Sunni Muslim - enjoyed close links to foreign organisations such as Britain's Conservative Party which undermined the country's faith. He has strenuously denied the allegations.

Drugs culture

The 41-year-old now finds himself on the verge of leading a tiny nation - made up of about of 1,192 islands off the tip of India - whose very existence is under threat from global warming.

He argued throughout the presidential campaign that the Maldives also faced other grave challenges: maintaining its lucrative tourist trade, ensuring a fairer distribution of wealth and tackling the drugs culture among bored youths.

Depicting himself as a harbinger of change throughout the campaign, Mr Nasheed has pledged economic prosperity through privatisation once he was in power.

Educated in the Maldives and then the UK, Mr Nasheed was one of the earliest and boldest dissidents in the islands, pursuing an early career as a journalist until he was persecuted for his writing.

In the early 1990s he established a reputation for his political commentaries in the Sangu magazine at a time when vocal criticism of the government was almost non-existent.

Sangu was later banned, and he was put under house arrest and imprisoned after giving an interview to the international press about his ill-treatment in detention.

Mr Nasheed spent 18 months in solitary confinement, alleging torture at the hands of the then National Security Services (NSS), which has since been split into the police and armed forces.

Punishments included severe sleep and water deprivation, being fed food with crushed glass and being chained to a chair outside for 12 days.

After spending some time abroad upon his release, Mr Nasheed was later jailed again for political writing, becoming an Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience in 1997.

During periods spent in jail, he studied and later wrote three books on Maldivian history both in English and the local Dhivehi script.

Elected as an MP in 1999, he was later forced from his seat following a theft charge which was widely condemned at the time as politically motivated.

He was prosecuted for taking files from outside the former residence of ex-President Ibrahim Nasir, an action classed by the state as theft.

In 2001 he unsuccessfully tried - along with other dissident politicians - to register the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

Mr Nasheed now lives in the capital island of Male with his wife, who works for the UN, and two daughters.

In September 2003, he intervened when 19-year-old Hassan Evan Naseem died in the country's largest prison, asking a doctor to see the body before the death certificate was signed.

It was later found he was tortured to death in by eight NSS officers.

The event marked a turning point in the country's history, sparking mass street and jail riots which resulted in the shooting of three prisoners.

Grassroots activists

Along with other reformists, Mr Nasheed finally managed to register the MDP on 26 June 2005.

But two months later he was arrested again after staging a sit-in in Male's Republican Square in protest over police handling of "Black Friday" demonstrations a year earlier.

In frustration at the slow pace of reforms, the MDP was close to calling for a revolution in November 2006.

That resulted in the defection of some of its senior members who argued that that the party should be pursuing a path of diplomacy and negotiation instead.

But grassroots activists remained loyal, and the MDP continued to lobby for freedom of speech and assembly.

Between then and now, Mr Nasheed oversaw the evolution of his party from an anti-Gayoom group into a government-in-waiting, successfully rebranding its identity.

In July, he and other party leaders visited Delhi to foster relations with the Indian government, which has previously had a close relationship to Mr Gayoom.

Mr Nasheed argues that his party seeks to offer a vision of a new Maldives, with campaign materials showing petals of white flowers representing pledges, including better transport, education and housing.


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