Amal Clooney faces Cherie Blair as jailed former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed appeals his sentence
By Ed King
This is the year when the Maldives should be focused on the fight of its life: climate change, and the impacts it could have on sea levels that threaten the tiny nation’s existence.
December’s UN summit in Paris is perhaps the last chance for this country of 340,000 to ensure it has a bright future beyond 2100, when some project the oceans could be a metre higher.
The highest parts of the islands and atolls that make up the Maldives are only two metres above sea level. Some fear that after Kiribati it could be one of the first countries to sink beneath the waves.
The alliance of small island states, which the Maldives currently leads, wants the world to agree to limit warming to 1.5C, a level it says could ensure the worst impacts of climate change are avoided.
For the past two decades its capital Male – perched on a coral atoll and surrounded by sea walls – had become emblematic of the fight against global warming.
That changed on 14 March this year, the day Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president and famed climate campaigner, was jailed for 13 years on terrorism charges.
Since then a PR storm has exploded over the capital and its beleaguered government, which supporters of Nasheed say is a dictatorship determined to crush any opposition.
Previously a human rights activist, in 2008 Nasheed assumed the presidency from Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled the country as a one-party state for the previous 30 years.
He snorkled his way to international fame in October 2009 when he held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight his country’s vulnerability to rising seas.
But it was at the 2009 UN conference in Copenhagen, where nearly 200 countries met to thrash out plans for a global climate pact, that Nasheed made his mark.
He was one of the few climate vulnerable leaders involved on the final hours of the summit, when heads of state from the US, China, India, Germany and other major powers met to salvage a deal from what had become a diplomatic train wreck.
“He was only one considered of sufficient stature, and that happens because of the moral force that he had acquired,” says Mark Lynas, a UK environmental activist who was Nasheed’s advisor in 2009.
Nasheed is, admits Jeffrey Salim Waheed, deputy permanent representative of the Maldives to the UN, a “climate change hero” and a “great showman” who raised the profile of the issue around the world.
Yet that profile was not enough to ensure the 2009 UN talks ended with a strong deal to limit warming, nor would it protect Nasheed against what he termed a “coup” in 2012.
The subsequent trial and his conviction were branded a “mockery of justice” by Amal Clooney, the human rights barrister representing the ex president, whose former clients include Julian Assange and Yulia Tymoshenko.
“Nasheed’s conviction sends a loud and clear message to the Maldivian people: opposition to the ruling regime will not be tolerated,” Clooney wrote in the Guardian, in what became a barrage of criticism directed at the Male government.
The US State Department said it was troubled by the “apparent lack of appropriate criminal procedures”, while UK Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire said he was concerned the trial had “not been conducted in a transparent and impartial manner.”
— Hugo Swire (@HugoSwire) June 24, 2015
If the Male government thought they could move on after Nasheed’s trial, they have been proved wrong. Very wrong.
Oil has been poured on the flames of an angry opposition movement within the country and from the arrival of Clooney and a high-level team of lawyers.
Clooney’s celebrity – due in part to her marriage to a Hollywood star called George – has ensured a gaggle of reporters and photographers during her visits to the islands.
And it gets better. In the opposing corner is a firm called Omnia Strategy, run by another high profile barrister: Cherie Blair, wife of former UK PM Tony.
Sparks are already flying between the two sides.
According to the Daily Mail, last week Blair was banned from a Foreign Office meeting between Maldivian foreign minister Dunya Maumoon and Hugo Swire
“They do not need expensive lawyers to be present. Mrs Blair’s presence at such a meeting would have been totally inappropriate,” a diplomatic source told the paper.
“She – or anyone else – would just have got in the way. It suggests the Maldives government knows it is on very flaky ground legally. Why else would their foreign minister want a lawyer at her side?”
Waheed insists the furore over Nasheed’s trial is overblown, motivated by political interests determined to build an international coalition against the Male government.
“We have admitted there are problems with all institutions…. even this government has said there needs to be some judicial reform,” he says.
And he maintains the government will not lose focus on the Paris talks, stressing its commitment to leading of the AOSIS group remains strong.
“We have been one of the few success stories in terms of multilateral diplomacy…. a driving force on changing norms on climate change.”
Others disagree. Lynas – a firm supporter of Nasheed – says AOSIS needs to change its chair before the Paris talks start, or risk being alienated from the talks.
Climate leadership and dictatorships do not work well together, he tells RTCC.
It’s not an issue delegates from small island states we have spoken to want to discuss at length.
Off the record one delegate said there was growing unease at the fate of Nasheed, but on the record the bloc remains strong.
Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum, often regarded as the de facto spokesperson for vulnerable nations due to his frenetic brand of diplomacy, simply says he wants all members to speak with “one voice”.
“We still hope that AOSIS can make an influence in Paris, that it will be a constant and united voice of small island states. It hasn’t been easy to get everyone along.”