Mohamed Nasheed, former President of the Maldives and Geneva Summit Courage Award winner, addresses the 9th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

9th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, Tuesday, February 21, 2017

On his abuse by authorities in the Maldives: 

“I’ve spent the good half of my adult life in prison. I lost my youth to chains, to incarcerations, to banishments, to torture, to abuse.”

“I was held in solitary confinement for 18 months, I was beaten, I have been spat on, urinated upon, I was trapped in stocks, held in chains, brutalised.”

“I was silly enough not to confess, I just couldn’t. So the torture went on, and on and on. It went on for 18 months.”

On torture in dictatorships:

“In totalitarian regimes, in dictatorships, torture is not simply for information. It is about capitulation. Clever dictators suck you up, they suck the life out of you, they consume your humanity.”

“They want to completely and utterly capitulate you; they want to erase you as an independent person; they want to kill your personality.”

On his political career:

“Although we were able to topple a dictator, please bear in mind it is possible to do that but it is not very easy to uproot a dictatorship. Its tentacles go very deep into society. Those favourable for the previous regime fermented a coup and I was deposed.”

I was fortunate to have won 47% of the vote and the present president won, I think, 26% or 27%. Then they nullified that result, of course, they had to. And then they had another round of elections and then again, we won, and then they nullified it again. So they had as many elections as it took for them to win.”

On his and humanity’s future:

“I will go back to the Maldives again, I will go back to jail again. I’m sure if I go back, I go straight to jail. But I have decided not to give up, never, ever, ever to give up. We will continue this fight.”

“The future is looking like the past. We are again embroiled in the same fears as our great, great grandfathers and our parents. The strong man is on the rise again.”

“The world is full of people that, when push comes to shove, they will stand up for their families, for their friends, and for humanity.”

His call to action:

“Please, artists, activists, NGOs, lawyers and diplomats, we must agitate to build civil, political and economic structures that will bring down dictatorships and authoritarian rule everywhere.”

Full Remarks

Good afternoon, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s an honour to accept the award you have given me. Thank you ever so much. I have been asked to say a few words about myself, how I have come to be here speaking to you today.

I’ve spent the good half of my adult life in prison. I lost my youth to chains, to incarcerations, to banishments, to torture, to abuse. 

I started my adult life as a journalist. I started writing for a small magazine in the Maldives; that was in 1989. The government deregistered that magazine and arrested the whole editorial board. I remember that night; 270 of us were arrested. I was held in solitary confinement for 18 months, I was beaten, I have been spat on, urinated upon, I was trapped in stocks, held in chains, and brutalised to the extent – of course you do not want to know the bloody gory details of it.

In totalitarian regimes, in dictatorships, torture is not simply for information. It is about capitulation. Clever dictators suck you up, they suck the life out of you, they consume your humanity. Under their torture, they do not want instant information. They are not interested in the next protest, when the next protest is or who said what about the regime. This is far more Orwellian. These people want to know everything about you; they want to know when you had your first cigarette, when you had your first girlfriend, what you did with her. They want to completely and utterly capitulate you. they want to erase you as an independent person. They want to kill your personality. They want to know everything.

But I was silly enough not to confess. I just couldn’t. So the torture went on, and on and on. It went on for 18 months. But finally, I suppose after having got bored of it, they decided to transfer me to a normal prison and sentenced me to two years and nine months. I was released just before I completed my sentence but then again I was silly so I wrote again and they arrested me again. This went on and on but, later on, they stopped torturing me, perhaps having understood that was an insufficient tool for their medicine on me. Every time they would release me and I would write again.

I wrote to all sorts of newspapers, anyone who would actually have me. I wrote to Sri Lankan papers, I wrote to the wire services. But with every news article, even when it was on the environment, I would be arrested. One night, a young boy of 19 was murdered in jail and I was having a cup of tea with the doctor. I wasn’t arrested at this time, surprisingly. The chief of police rang this doctor and wanted a death certificate for the boy. So, of course, I got livid, ‘why?’ The doctor agreed that he would not sign the death certificate until the boy was brought to the hospital.

That sparked a riot in Malé, the capital of the Maldives. That set in train a whole set of events that would finally deliver democracy to the Maldives. But of course, I was arrested. But in the confusion of the day, I was able to leave the Maldives. I went to Sri Lanka and we declared a party in exile. 

I must tell you a little before that, maybe perhaps a year before that, thinking that I might have some safety and security, I decided to get elected or seek a parliamentary seat. I sought it in the capital Malé, where I was born, and the people of my island decided to elect me. I was very wrong; they arrested me again. So these arrests would continue. So finally after having left for exile and after having declared the party in Colombo, we started speaking to our people. Then I was shot at and chased out of Sri Lanka. I sought asylum in England. The British government, Her Majesty’s Government, was kind enough to grant me asylum there. 

But later that year – now this was in 2004 – I decided to go back to the Maldives. By then, we had been able to galvanise other people to political activism. We had started to amend the constitution. I went back home; of course, they arrested me. But then they released me. We wanted free and fair elections, we wanted political pluralism, we wanted organised peaceful political activity. We were fortunate enough to have achieved that and we had our first multi-party elections in 2008 and I was fortunate to have won those elections.

I became the president and we started running a government, running a country. While I was writing I was very often also writing about climate change as well as corruption and human rights. In government, we found out that we will not be a country for long because of climate change issues. So we had to start advocating on a whole set of other issues as well. We did that and Ms. Thors has highlighted that. I hope that we were able to impress upon the international community the gravity of the issue.

Although we were able to topple a dictator, please bear in mind it is possible to do that but it is not very easy to uproot a dictatorship. Its tentacles go very deep into society. Those favourable for the previous regime fermented a coup and I was deposed. After that, we started again advocating for early elections, free and fair elections. This was the first and only televised coup in the Maldives. But the Commonwealth and the United Nations sponsored a Commission of National Inquiry conducted by the coup government and stamped the transfer of power as legitimate. We agreed to that narrative, to that lie. Mind you, in my life very often I agree to many, many lies. And we agreed to that lie that the transfer of power was legitimate. But as I say, as I keep saying, this was a televised coup, for God’s sake. We hoped that the Commission of National Inquiry would look into other issues, would look into issues of democracy, strengthening democracy, human rights, strengthening human rights because the report did say that, but unfortunately I was wrong. They did not. As soon as the transfer of power was stamped, that was the end of it.

We did not get the early elections that we wanted, we did not get the reforms in the judiciary, we did not get the reforms in the military, in the police. We went into another election tempered by the Supreme Court, skewed by the coup government in power. We had the first round of elections in which I was fortunate to have won 47% of the vote and the present president won, I think, 26% or 27%. Then they nullified that result, of course, they had to. And then they had another round of elections and then again, we won, and then they nullified it again. So they had as many elections as it took for them to win. And then, I considered defeat. I agreed to that election result, again, because I felt that because we had been on the streets for 2 years, I felt that if I hadn’t conceded defeat, the country was poised for internal conflict and that would not be in the long-term interest of the people of the Maldives and the stability of the Indian Ocean. Many in hindsight can argue that I was wrong, but I still hold to that view.

After conceding this defeat, I was only able to live for a few months. President Yamin decided not only to arrest me but all of the opposition. Every single opposition leader of the Maldives is now under arrest and we have more than 1,700 dissidents in one form or another or incarceration; under interrogation, on trial or in jail or under house arrest, in some form or other of arrest. It surprises me immensely that there is so little international attention on our predicament but we will not give up. 

I was arrested and I was put to jail. I spent one year; I was arrested for 13 years for terrorism. Mind you, I’ve been arrested well over two dozen times and the only one I have not been charged with is sodomy. I’ve been charged for everything. 

I have a brilliant set of lawyers. I thank you, Jared. Jared Genser, Amal Clooney and Ben Emmerson worked very hard as my international lawyers and I thank my local lawyers, Hisaan Hussein, Hassan Latheef, Ahmed Shafar. I thank my wife, my two daughters, my extended family, my cousins, my uncle and aunts. I thank my courageous and democratic party and its members, our supporters, the people of the Maldives for consistently agitating until I was out. They had the streets of Malé filled with people until, under a pretext of medicine, I was able to travel to England. Mind you, I do have a bad back. 

I will go back to the Maldives again, I will go back to jail again. I’m sure if I go back, I go straight to jail. But I have decided not to give up, never, ever, ever to give up. We will continue this fight.

Before we end, there is one little point that I would like to touch upon. The world is changing. The future is looking like the past. We are again embroiled in the same fears as our great, great grandfathers and our parents. The strong man is on the rise again. Mind you, it’s always a man. That man will arrest us. That man will torture us. That man will make us confess to his worldview. That man will bring trumped-up charges in kangaroo courts. That man will sentence us. That man will suppress us. 

I have actually come here today to tell you to stand up against that man, stand up and do not blink. The world is full of people that, when push comes to shove, they will stand up for their families, for their friends, and for humanity. Please, artists, activists, NGOs, lawyers and diplomats, we must agitate to build civil, political and economic structures that will bring down dictatorships and authoritarian rule everywhere. We can do this peacefully. We must engage in peaceful political activity. We must destabilise and subvert the strong man. Let’s empower the dissidents in all suppressed, authoritarian societies and agitate to build political parties and civil societies. We must assist the dissidents to organise underground, in exile and at home.

Ladies and gentlemen, the times are changing but let’s choose to be on top of the curve.

Thank you.