COLOMBO: Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, the Jumhoori Party leader Gasim Ibrahim, and Sheikh Imran, leader of the Adalaath Party, cannot contest the September 2018 Maldivian Presidential election because they do not qualify to do so under the constitution of the country, the Maldivian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Mohamed Hussain Shareef, said here on Monday.

The envoy, who met the media here along with the Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Mohamed Shainee and Attorney General Mohamed Anil, pointed out that according to the Maldivian law, no one who had been convicted and sentenced to a term of more than 12 months in prison can contest elections unless three years have passed after their release. And there is an age bar too, with the cap being put at 65.

Nasheed had been sentenced in 2015 to 13 years in jail for abducting a judge, and Gasim Ibrahim was sentenced this year to more than three years in prison for attempting to bribe parliamentarians to vote in favor of an impeachment motion against the Speaker of parliament. He is also over the age limit of 65. The Adaalath Paty leader, Sheikh Imran, cannot contest because he has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for a bid to overthrow President Abdulla Yameen by violence.

But the opposition parties led by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of Mohamed Nasheed, have been demanding that these leaders be given the right to contest even charging that laws have been made to suit the interest of the ruler.

Explaining the law making spree since Abdulla Yameen became President in 2013, Attorney General Mohamed Anil said that from the beginning of the new constitution in 2008 up to 2013 (the period in which Mohamed Nasheed was in power), the constitution existed only in a skeletal or shell form with virtually no new statutes to make it come to life.

“Archaic laws continued to be operative while the new constitution had modern features. New laws had not been made to suit the new ideals. For example, rape was not a crime! It was only when we came to power that we went on a crash program to make statutes,” Anil said.

The Maldivian officials said that the laws applicable to Nasheed, Gasim and Sheikh Imran are well founded and reasonable. They also pointed out that the existing Maldivian system had been magnanimous enough to allow Nasheed and Gasim Ibrahim to go abroad to avail of medical treatment.

But instead of coming back and completing their sentences they have been overstaying overseas (Nasheed in the UK and Gasim Ibrahim in Singapore and Germany) as fugitives from justice and plotting to overthrow of President Yameen.

On the doubts raised by former President Maumoon Abdul Gyoom about the Presidential election not being held as per law in 2018, the Attorney General said that the polls will be held and will be “free and transparent.” He recalled that in 2014 elections to parliament were held. Later local bodies elections were also held, both certified by local and international observers as having been free and fair.

Ambassador Shareef said the problem of candidacy for the forthcoming Presidential election has nothing to do with the government. It has everything to do with the opposition, which has been unable to find a common candidate.

“ Nasheed has not groomed anybody to be a candidate because he wants to be at the top all the time. He would throw out any aspirant to the top position. He is talking about an Interim Presidential candidate until he is cleared for contesting. But there is no provision for an Interim President in the constitution,” Shareef pointed out.

On the charge that many MPs have been ousted from parliament for changing parties, Attorney General Anil said that the Supreme Court had ruled that an MP elected to be part of a particular party could not betray his electors by changing sides after election. Changing parties after elections should lead to the forfeiture of membership of parliament, the court had said.

On the charge that human rights violations are rampant under Yameen’s dispensation, Attorney General Anil said that this is baseless because cases of violation are being investigated and arrests and prosecutions are taking place.

Maldives had ratified seven out of nine international human rights conventions, but some like the one on religious freedom cannot be ratified as the Maldives is an Islamic country with its laws being in tune with Sharia.

As regards the media, Anil pointed out that one look at the coverage would show that there are plenty of stories which are critical of the government.

The Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Mohamed Shainee defended the Maldives-China Free Trade Agreement (MCFTA) saying that it will throw upon the massive Chinese market to Maldivian fish and fish products. He pointed out that fish and fish products account for 90% of Maldives’ exports. These will enter the Chinese market at zero percent duty when the FTA becomes law.

“Maldives had to look to China because the European Union had stopped its GSP Plus concessional duty facility on account of the country’s becoming a middle income country. Maldivian fisheries products are now paying 25 to 26% duty to enter Europe,” Shainee pointed out.

Asked if Maldives would not be flooded by Chinese goods, and government would not lose customs revenue if Chinese goods also entered the country at low or zero duty, Anil said that Chinese goods will be necessary to carry out the many infrastructural and modernization projects planned by President Yameen. A lot of machinery and technical equipment would be required. The FTA would enable such goods to enter Maldives easily.

A lot of infrastructural work would have to be carried out to diversify the Maldivian economy and release it from over dependence on fishing. Besides, the country needs more and better resorts to increase tourist arrivals from the current 1.5 million per annum to about 7 or 8 million per annum.

“President Yameen has set a target of 50 more resorts to be built by 2018 end. Thirty eight have already been built. We have seven regional airports but we need many more to transport tourists, goods and services,” Shainee said.

The Minister further said that the infrastructure projects are also meant to give jobs to Maldivian youth. And this is tied to the security of the country as a well-educated and well-employed youth population will not take to violence.

Ambassador Shareef said that much of the criticism of the Maldives-China FTA is based on geopolitical apprehensions about China. He pointed out that there are two foreign funded US$ 1 billion projects now on in Maldives, one is Thai and other is Chinese. But only the Chinese project is noticed and commented upon.

The envoy made it clear that the deals with China are purely commercial. And given Maldives’ thirst for development and President Yameen’s zeal for fast and time bound development, there is room for investor from all countries, both from the South Asian region and outside.

The fact that the Maldives is part of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) does not preclude investors from other countries from participating in the country’s development, added Minister Shinee. Maldives sees the OBOR as an international connectivity project and welcomes it as connectivity is vital for the survival of the Indian Ocean island nation.

Chinese investments in the development of the Male airport and the bridge connecting Male to Huluhumale are all part of the OBOR he asserted.