2012 Maldives coup: background and analysis

Paul Roberts witnessed the overthrow of President Nasheed of the Maldives first-hand. Below he explains some of the background to the coup and how he came to work for Nasheed. He also discusses what has happened to the country since Nasheed was deposed.

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Supporters of Maldives' former President Mohamed Nasheed attends a public rally at sunrise urging the government to hold immediate elections in MaleAP Photo, Sinan Hussain

The Maldives is an ancient country, with a written history dating back over 2,000 years. For 1,997 of those 2,000 years, the country endured autocratic rule.

But in 2008, the country became the precursor to the Arab Spring, shaking off its long-time autocrat and ushering in democracy for the first time.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ruled the Maldives with an iron fist from 1978-2008. Amnesty International condemned his regime for perpetrating torture and human rights abuses against his political opponents. Reporters Without Borders labelled Gayoom a "predator of press freedom."

One of those who spoke out was a young democracy activist named Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed started life as a journalist, bravely criticising the corruption and human rights abuses he uncovered. He soon found himself on the receiving end of Gayoom's ire.

Nasheed was jailed and brutally tortured. At one point he was forced to eat ground glass. At another, kept in solitary confinement a tiny metal cell, 6x4ft in size, for 18 months.

Current for change

In 2003, a young boy named Evan Naseem was beaten to death by guards in the local jail. For years Maldivians had heard the rumours about what was happening in the prisons. This time, however, Evan's mother invited the public to the cemetery to see first hand his battered and broken body. Public revulsion over the murder sparked a riot in the capital city, Malé. This was the first time Maldivians had ever stood up against Gayoom's brutality.

Sensing an underlying current for change, Nasheed slipped out of the country and formed the Maldives' first opposition party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), in exile.

The party agitated for democracy. Domestic and international pressure on Gayoom began to grow and in 2005 Nasheed returned to the Maldives to step up the pressure, initiating a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience against the regime.

Gayoom's grip began to slip. He was forced to relent and agreed to change the constitution as well as holding multi-party elections for the first time. In November 2008, in historic polls, Nasheed was elected president.

But on 7 February 2012 he was ousted in a police and military-backed coup d'état, orchestrated by Gayoom with the connivance of Nasheed's vice-president, Waheed Hassan, who has since taken over the presidency.

Ferocity of belief

Mohamed Nasheed waves during a public rally urging the government to hold immediate elections in MaleAP Photo, Sinan Hussain

I first met Nasheed in 2001, during a holiday to the Maldives.

In those days, the Maldives was a very repressive place. People talked about politics in hushed tones - even in their own homes. Anyone caught espousing anti-government views tended to disappear in the middle of the night.

Nasheed was under house arrest at the time. I was stuck by his strength of character and the ferocity of his belief that Maldivians wanted democracy, and change was around the corner.

In 2003, when Evan Naseem was murdered, I was working in India for the British NGO WaterAid. My contract was coming to an end and I'd been offered a new contract in Bangladesh.

Nasheed called me and asked me to work in Colombo helping the MDP in exile. At the time, Bangladesh was under six feet of water, so I decided helping the cause of Maldivian democracy in green and pleasant Sri Lanka was a better prospect.

Then after the 2008 elections, Nasheed asked me to be his communications adviser. I handled relations with the foreign press on behalf of the government.

A Maldivian army soldier, left, and policeman take cover as a supporter of Mohamed Nasheed, who resigned Tuesday from his post as Maldivian President, hurls back a tear gas canister thrown during a protest in MaleAP Photo, Eranga Jayawardena

Brutal put-down

Since quickly assuming office from Nasheed in a hurried ceremony on the afternoon of the 7 February 2012, President Waheed has moved to fill his government with ministers loyal to former President Gayoom, including Gayoom's son, Ghassan, and daughter, Dunya.

The three security people who are believed to have orchestrated the coup - two of whom stood next to Nasheed when he penned his resignation letter - have been made Police Chief, Defence Minister and Deputy Home Minister.

Waheed has quickly flexed his muscles: on 8 February, his security forces brutally put down an MDP demonstration. During the crackdown, Nasheed was punched in the face by a police officer and one of his MPs beaten unconscious and left for dead.

Daily protests

The Maldives has been rocked by daily protests of pro-democracy supporters, including thousands of women, furious at what has happened and demanding early elections.

The Commonwealth, the EU, Britain, India and the United States have called on Waheed to hold early elections and appoint an independent body to investigate what happened on 7 February. He has so far refused, claiming the constitution does not permit it.

As people pour onto the streets - defying police intimidation - and the new regime, dominated by the old guard from the former dictatorship, refuses to relent, there is growing concern that the Maldives will slip back into its old, authoritarian ways.