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From Political Prisoner to Climate Activist: Ousted Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed Speaks Out

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In part two of our interview with ousted president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, he describes the battle for democracy in his country after he was forced out at gunpoint in February. To his surprise, the United States instantly recognized the man who took his place. Nasheed was a longtime pro-democracy activist who was jailed for six years under former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s rule. The coup became news across the globe in part because Nasheed has become an internationally recognized leader in the effort to address the root causes of climate change. The Maldives rise just 1.3 meters above sea level, making his nation and other island states extremely vulnerable from rising sea waters due to global warming. We also speak with Jon Shenk, director of a new documentary about Nasheed’s life, “The Island President,” which is now playing in theaters. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryNov 04, 2021Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed on Climate Risk & Surviving Assassination Attempt
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We spend the rest of the hour with the former president of the Maldives. The tiny island Indian [Ocean] state remains in a state of political turmoil two months after the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was ousted in what he has described as a coup at gunpoint. To Nasheed’s surprise, the U.S. called the coup “constitutional.”

In 2008, Mohamed Nasheed beat the longtime ruler of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in the country’s first free and open election. Prior to the vote, Nasheed was a longtime pro-democracy activist who was jailed for six years. At the time, he was described as the “Mandela of the Maldives.” Nasheed now insists the February 7th coup was led by supporters of the former dictator.

The coup became news across the globe in part because Nasheed has become an internationally recognized leader on climate issues, as he urges the world to do more to save small island states from rising sea waters. Ousted Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed once held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat of global warming to the Maldives. He also pledged to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country and installed solar panels on the roof of his presidential residence.

President Nasheed’s rise to power and climate activism is the focus of a new documentary called The Island President. This is an excerpt.

PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: If we can’t stop the seas rising, if you allow for a 2-degree rise in temperature, you are actually agreeing to kill us. I have an objective, which is to save the nation. I know it’s a huge task. I’ve been arrested 12 times. I’ve been tortured twice. I spent 18 months in solitary.

We won our battle for democracy in the Maldives. A year later, there are those who tell us that solving climate change is impossible. Well, I am here to tell you that we refuse to give up hope.

AMY GOODMAN: Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed was ousted in a coup two months ago. That’s an excerpt from the film The Island President. Juan Gonzalez and I recently interviewed President Nasheed when he was here in New York along with filmmaker Jon Shenk. I asked President Nasheed how Western governments responded to the coup in the Maldives.

MOHAMED NASHEED: …encouraged by the European position. The British government, for instance, refers to Dr. Waheed as the former vice president, not as the president. The European governments have not recognized the new regime in the Maldives. We hope that the U.S.—

AMY GOODMAN: The European—

MOHAMED NASHEED: The European Union.

AMY GOODMAN: —countries, the European Union.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Yes, including the United Kingdom, and especially—

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, the U.S. has.

MOHAMED NASHEED: And yet, the U.S. has. And, you know, we were a British protectorate since—until 1965, and we do believe that they understand what happens in the Maldives, you know, fairly accurately. We would hope that the United States government would again reassess the facts and realign their policies with more—more according to the facts on the ground.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about other countries that obviously have a lot of influence, like China and India? What have their stances been?

MOHAMED NASHEED: You know, India has been taking a similar stand. China has been taking a similar stand.

AMY GOODMAN: To the United States?

MOHAMED NASHEED: To the United States. So, you know, we have these bigger powers trying to talk about a unity government. But we’ve been trying to tell them, “Look, what the coup is doing is unifying Gayoom; it’s not unifying the country.” There is no unity of the country by the coup, but it would unify Gayoom.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, President Nasheed, you have a long history of activism in the Maldives. You certainly know adversity. I want to turn to an excerpt of the film by Jon Shenk called The Island President, that looks at your role in opposing the dictatorship in the Maldives before you became president. Voices that you will hear in this part include the Maldives dissident Mohamed Zuhair, Laila Ali, the wife of President Mohamed Nasheed. It begins with Nasheed.

PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: After graduation, I came back to the Maldives. By this time, the state had become more and more repressive. So we decided that it would be good to come up with a magazine.

MOHAMED ZUHAIR: Nasheed and I and a few others began a publication called Sangu, which was a political publication.

PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: It was talking about two things: corruption and human rights abuse. It was very critical of the regime. One night, at about 3:00 in the morning, they came to my house. They raided my home and took a whole lot of papers.

LAILA ALI: They came in. They took him away. It was in the middle of the night. I mean, we had heard so many stories of what they were doing in the jails and all that, so it was terrifying, you know, really.

PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: I refused to give a confession. So, because of this, I was taken to a corrugated iron sheet cell. The whole cell is five feet by three feet. You had a mat. That’s all.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Nasheed eventually went into exile but returned to the Maldives to lead a fledgling pro-democracy movement. This is another excerpt of The Island President.

MOHAMED ASLAM: I would be lying if I tell you that I wasn’t afraid. But—and he keeps telling us all the time, you know, “You must get courage from each other. So, stand by together.”

PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: Demonstrations were taking place all throughout the country. There were huge demonstrations in Fares-Maathodaa, Thinadhoo, Kinbidhoo, Ukulhas—you know, many, many, many islands. This was spreading like wildfire. It just finally came to a point that Gayoom had to relent, and he had to allow free and fair elections.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mohamed Nasheed just before the election that led to his presidency in 2008. You were tortured in the Maldives as a political dissident. We were just listening to you and saw your jail cell. Explain what happened to you. Where—talk about your background, why you came to be first a dissident and then the president.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, I came back after university in 1989, 1989. And then we started bringing out a small magazine, a political magazine. I had no intention of doing anything so large. But suddenly, the magazine, people started reading it. And six months down the line, they arrested—they de-registered the magazine and arrested all of the editorial board and tortured us heavily. And they wanted a confession, a televised confession, out of me saying that what I did was wrong, and this was, you know, fueling disharmony, and I was not for unity, and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: How did they torture you?

MOHAMED NASHEED: The cell that you just saw, I was in it for 18 months. I was in chains. I was also chained to the power generators of the island. And I would be routinely beaten up. I would be fed glass mixed with my food. Oh, my god, it’s, you know, any horrendous imagination that you can come up with, it happened there. And so, it’s really, you know, up to the torturer’s imagination to do what you wanted to. The whole idea was to get a confession out of me. But I was just too silly not to give a confession. I wouldn’t recommend anyone not to do that, to do what I did. You know, instantly, it’s much better to give a confession. Facing all that torture is not something that anyone should be faced with.

We have tried—we have cleaned the police. We have cleaned the jails. No one was tortured in the last three years. No one was unduly, unconstitutionally arrested during the last three years. And—but unfortunately, we were not able to clean the police force as much as we would have wished, and therefore there were elements of them inside, and there was, you know, these 200 policemen who finally came out and overthrew the elected government.

Gayoom’s jails and the extent of torture that was happening there, finally, in 2004—you know, they were so complacent as to drop a dead body into the boy’s mother’s home, saying, “This happened last night. Just bury him.” But this mother refused to do that, finally, and then she brought the body out to the streets, out to the hospital, and everyone saw it. And the whole country went out on the streets that night and that day, and then again the police and the military came out and shot seven people. So, after that, I left the Maldives, and we started our party in exile. During this time, I was MP for Malé, a member of parliament for Malé. Now, it’s really—


MOHAMED NASHEED: The capital island. First, I was elected as the secretary for the ward, and then they arrested me. And when they released, the people again elected me as MP for Malé. And then they again arrested me. And then the people elected me as president of the country. And then they have again overthrown me. I’m sure that the people of the Maldives do want democracy, and they want to have a decent life. And they want to be free from fear, free from intimidation, ill treatment and torture.

AMY GOODMAN: What was Gayoom doing during the time of your presidency? I mean, you were tortured? Did Gayoom take direct responsibility for your torture, the 18 months that you were held, let alone the other people who were in the same situation?

MOHAMED NASHEED: No. No, he didn’t. And we were not able to investigate that. We were not able to bring him to the courts, because the courts were his hand-picked judges, and we were not able to reform the judiciary. And so, he’s always been safer. He was in the Maldives for a few days a month, and then he would always be living actually in Malaysia. He has just returned after the coup. And both his children are in government ministries as ministers. And all his associates and cronies are back in the government.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So you have no doubt that he had a major role in the—in this now—the conspiracy that you later discovered had been building for months.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Yes. I mean, I have no doubt now, and no one else would command such capacity to pull something so brilliantly seamless as this. And it’s him. You would find his fingerprints all over the place. The chief—the gentleman who was out—not so gentle, rather—who was out on the streets doing this, he is now the defense minister. And the three—the two main leaders of the coup, one is the chief of police, the other is the defense minister now. And the present chief of police is a renowned torturer. I’ve known him for ages. And, you know, we are in a very, very sad situation, and we need to get out of this.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Jon Shenk, do you see a possible sequel or a part two of this saga in a new film?

JON SHENK: It is highly dramatic. It’s amazing. And the thing about the film—in the film, you’ll see a strong connection that Nasheed makes between, you know, the fight for democracy and good governance and the civil rights that come with that, and the fight for human rights and civil rights that come with, you know, the fight for climate justice. And this is just another in a series of events in the Maldives that brings those points home.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Jon, you made this film, The Island President, not to cover the coup—in fact, it’s not included in the film, because the film came out before that—


AMY GOODMAN: —but because of the climate activism of this remarkable president that we have rarely seen in the world. Can you talk about what you chronicle in the film, the whole issue of taking on climate change?

JON SHENK: Well, you know, when President Nasheed stepped into office, he had already spent a lifetime, you know, 20-something years of, you know, being a street activist to try to bring democracy to the Maldives. And he stepped into office, and he—I think he said to himself, you know, “What can I do now? What’s the next step?” And one of the logical next steps for the Maldives, especially, since it’s such a low-lying, vulnerable country, is the fight against climate change. His nation, his people, and then, by extension, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people in the world’s rights are in danger due to, you know, the global temperature rise. So it was a natural step for him, but a hugely brave one. You know, he had this kind of bottom-up mentality of taking to the streets and, you know, doing peaceful protest in the Maldives to bring democracy there. He brought that same mentality to the world stage. But instead of sitting in on the streets, he basically brought his fight to global leaders in sort of the big, powerful countries of the world who ultimately control the destiny of the world in the climate arena.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us a climate geo—place your country in the context of climate change, and even the geography of your country. What does it mean? What you have been saying at the U.N. climate change conferences, bring it home for us. What would happen to the Maldives? What is happening to them? What does climate change mean to you?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, we are a front-line state in the climate issue. We would be the first to be hit in any imbalance to the environment, or to nature, rather, because we are so precarious, we are so fragile, and we are just 1.3 meters above the sea. So any slight rise in the levels of the sea would have—we would have serious consequences of coastal erosion. We already have 16 islands where we are having to relocate people. We have 70 islands where we have water contamination because of saltwater intrusion into our freshwater lens. We fish for a living, and we do it one by one. We do not purse seine. And to do one-by-one fishing, you have to raise the school of fish by baiting it. And the school of fish would come because of temperature differences. Now, when ocean temperatures change, our fish cache dwindles. We also have our coral reefs. That is the first line of defense for the islands. And because of ocean temperature changes, we are increasingly seeing coral bleaching and the corals dying. So, therefore, we are having to go into very, very big adaptation programs.

Now, you know, embankments, water breakers and desalination plants, these are very expensive issues. These are very, very expensive programs, infrastructure programs. So to cover that, we had to have a proper government. We had to come up with a proper tax system, where the government had enough revenue. So we introduced income tax, corporate tax, and a goods and services tax. The government never had income streams as this before. They were always living with one-off revenue measures. They would be selling something and getting some money and then doing it, but not a sustainable income stream from any taxation. We introduced a social protection program, where everyone had free Medicare, everyone was given health insurance. We introduced an inter-island transport system. We gave pension to the elderlies, to the single mothers, to orphans and to the disabled. So, you know, we had a very strong social protection program. Now, taxation and the social protection program was not liked by the big businessmen—tax, of course, because we were taking money out of them; the social protection program, because we were liberating people from their clutches. In the absence of the social protection program, the islanders and everyone always had to go to these businessmen and beg them for a prescription or beg them for some money for anything.

AMY GOODMAN: President Mohamed Nasheed, ousted from the Maldives two months ago. We’ll come back to our conversation with him and the filmmaker Jon Shenk, who made a film about Nasheed’s life called The Island President, in a few seconds. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: I spoke with President Mohamed Nasheed, ousted by a coup in the Maldives two months ago, along with my colleague Juan Gonzalez, Democracy Now! co-host. We also spoke to the filmmaker Jon Shenk, who did the film The Island President. We go back to President Mohamed Nasheed.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Coming up with a state was not the idea of the dictatorship. Neither was it the idea of the funders of the dictatorship, Gayoom’s cronies. So they didn’t like it. And also, at the same time, there’s been Islamic radicalism creeping into the Maldives since the 1970s, and Gayoom, coming from Azhar University—Gayoom, remember, was Hosni Mubarak’s friend, university mate, and they actually grew up together.


MOHAMED NASHEED: In Egypt. So, Maldives was being really quite radicalized through Gayoom’s preaching and talking about Islam, all the Islamic rhetoric, as well. And in the—halfway down during the early ’90s—

AMY GOODMAN: You are Muslim also?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Yes, I am a Muslim. During the '90s, Gayoom suddenly realized that there were other branches of radical Islam who were not in league with him. And in the absence of legal political peaceful activity, any dissent was actually available through really just extremists. So young people were joining these groups, not necessarily because of their—any religious belief, but I—my belief, mainly because they wanted to challenge the status quo. So, there was a really—this is a really explosive situation. And we must understand, even with the coup, there were about 70 radical Islamists in the military. We've known about that, but I never knew that they were under a single command. So, that formed the backbone of the coup. And Gayoom and the police and the businessmen were able to plug into that and come out with this revolt.

Now, we beat the Islamists in the first presidential election. In the parliamentary election, they did not get a single seat. In the local government election, out of 1,081 seats, they only won four seats, only because we didn’t contest for these four seats. We just wanted to have them around. But now, after the coup, they have three cabinet portfolios, they are calling the shots in the military, and they have a number of junior government ministerial portfolios. And, you know, this can’t be in the interest of anyone. This is so strange, and I really don’t understand why democratic forces cannot understand that and why democratic forces cannot push us towards an early election.

AMY GOODMAN: President Nasheed, talk about the various ways you have made the issue of climate change a global issue in your own country. The underwater cabinet meeting that you held, talk about that.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, you know, we—our means are very, very modest. We can’t go in for big advertising campaigns, and we cannot really compete with oil companies at all. So we decided, you know, how do we get the message across? We understood the gravity of it, the seriousness of it. So, to bring the message across, we had an underwater cabinet meeting. And I like diving, and, you know, most of our cabinet members like diving, as well. Dr. Am Jameel, we had to teach her how to do it. But I think it brought the message. You know, yes, it was kind of light in entertainment, but the serious message was there. The idea was that if you did nothing, this is what the Maldives would be. So I think that did register among many, many, many, many people.

We also went to Copenhagen for the climate conference hoping that there will be a deal, that there will be an international understanding that would limit carbon emission, that would control global temperatures rising more than 1.5 degrees from what it is now, and have 350 parts per million of carbon in atmosphere and nothing more than that. This was what we were aiming at. This is what we were driving at, to see if they can have a proper, legally binding agreement.

Now, when I went there, I found that there was so much mistrust between nations. You know, even nations who kind of weren’t against each other were not able to come together, because they just didn’t trust each other. Now, for instance, India, United States and China, they were saying the same thing, but because of so much mistrust—of course, they were not saying the things that we would like them saying. But my feeling, my understanding—and then you had the Europeans who were saying almost the same things as we were doing. So, you know, for instance, the representative of Tuvalu was so against the Europeans, but basically, you know, the Europeans were saying the same thing as what Tuvalu was saying. So, you know, there was so much mistrust through all what has happened.

AMY GOODMAN: But you really embarrassed the Obama administration by really pushing hard for this cap on carbon emissions at a time when the U.S. was pushing in the other direction. And I wanted to ask about that WikiLeaks document that came out with the State Department cables, that a great deal was made of, saying that you were offered or were asking for $50 million from the United States, and that ultimately you signed onto the Copenhagen Accord because of a promise of this.

MOHAMED NASHEED: No, no, we were not offered anything. We were not given anything, and we’ve never been given anything. I—we signed to two degrees, because that was a middle ground between us and the Americans, the Chinese, the Brazilians, the big emitting countries.

AMY GOODMAN: That you would go from 1.5 to two degrees Centigrade.

MOHAMED NASHEED: One-point-five to two, but also the document did say that they would review it within a period of five years and come back to 1.5. I thought the Copenhagen agreement was a reasonable agreement. I thought it was a success. And I still believe that it was an agreement among heads of states. I saw them all. There were 25 of them. They said yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Ousted President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives. The documentary about his life is called The Island President_. You can go to our website for the again”>conclusion of that interview.

Tuesday, Democracy Now!'s Sharif Abdel Kouddous will join us to talk about the latest developments in Egypt. He's just flown in from Cairo. On Tuesday night, he’s receiving the Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media in Ithaca, New York, at Ithaca College. He’ll be speaking there at 7:30 p.m. at Phillips Hall.

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Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed on Climate Risk & Surviving Assassination Attempt

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