Ex-leader of Maldives plans return to save sinking nation

Former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed believes the island nation is heading for environmental catastrophe (AFP Photo/VALERIE MACON) (AFP)
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  • Mohamed Nasheed
    Maldivian politician, 4th president of the second republic of Maldives

He faces jail in the Maldives, but former president Mohamed Nasheed says he wants to contest elections and guide his island nation away from environmental catastrophe.

Nasheed became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives in 2008 but lives in exile in London after he was jailed on terrorism charges he says were politically motivated.

"I don't think I can return home without risks. I don't think there will ever be a time for that," the 49-year-old told AFP during a visit to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

"I guess I'll have to take the risks and do it, if I were to do it."

In the past he has accused Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years and is still regarded as the power behind the throne, of being behind his downfall.

But in September he indicated he wanted to bury the hatchet with Gayoom, amid reports of a rift between the former strongman leader and his half-brother, current President Abdulla Yameen.

"We are still working on it. What we would really like to see is a free and fair election -- not necessarily changing the government now," he told AFP.

"I don't think we will have a free and fair election as things stand now. So we will have to have the whole opposition together and come out with a single candidate."

Once a honeymoon paradise before its tourism industry was shaken by political unrest, the Indian Ocean island chain could be underwater by 2100, according to the United Nations.

- Corruption -

"It's already happening in the Maldives, it isn't something that is going to happen. We are already going through it," said Nasheed. He said that 16 of the 196 inhabitable islands already needed to be evacuated.

Nasheed is pushing for the Maldives to use its own resources rather than international aid to bolster its defenses against rising seas, damage to its precious coral and coastal erosion.

"To do that, we must have investor confidence, for us to bring the money into the country. It is my view that we have enough resources," he told AFP.

Investment has stopped because of corruption, he says, citing what he describes as the unlawful termination of construction contracts by Yameen's government.

In October last year the country was ordered by an arbitration panel in Singapore to pay Indian construction firm GMR $270 million after cancelling a contract to build the airport near Male.

Nasheed says the government reneged on the deal to allow another company paying big backhanders to step in.

The politician is at Sundance to take part in a climate change discussion panel on Sunday with former US president Al Gore, now a celebrated environmental champion.

The Maldivian rails against the argument forwarded by developing economies such as India that they are entitled to as many years of polluting the environment as the West was allowed.

"This is like saying the West has brought us to the brink and therefore now the developing countries must have the opportunity to push us off the cliff," he told AFP.

- Crackdown -

A crackdown on political dissent in the nation of 340,000 has dented its popular image as an upmarket holiday paradise in recent years.

Almost all key opposition leaders and a number of ruling party dissidents have either been jailed or gone into exile since Yameen took office after winning a controversial run-off election against Nasheed in 2013.

Nasheed was jailed for 13 years in 2015 but granted prison leave last year for medical treatment in London, where he secured political asylum.

A UN panel has ruled that his imprisonment was illegal and ordered the regime to pay him compensation.

Nasheed spoke to AFP as Donald Trump, who has denied climate change for years, was being sworn in as the 45th US president.

Trump's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency is Scott Pruitt, a fossil fuels advocate who was still voicing skepticism over the concept of man-made climate change as recently as his Senate nomination hearing on Wednesday.

"I completely respect the decision of the American people. They voted their own president in and there's nothing wrong with that at all," Nasheed said.

"I do not think climate change issues, or the progress made, can be reversed by any single person."

Nasheed was asked about Trump's comments about possibly reneging on carbon-reduction commitments made at the global climate talks in Paris, claiming that climate change is low on the list of US priorities.

"Many politicians when they come to positions think that," Nasheed said.

"But when you start running a government you find out the truth, and you can't run away from it."

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