Mohamed Nasheed went into exile after being jailed on dubious terror offences
Mohamed Nasheed arrives at the airport in the Maldives after living in exile for three years. Photograph: Mohamed Sharuhaan/AP
The first democratically elected president of the Maldives, who sought political asylum in the UK after being jailed on dubious terrorism offences, has returned to the country after three years in exile.
Mohamed Nasheed, a democracy activist who won the island nation’s first free election in 2008, landed in the Maldives at about 3pm local time and was greeted by supporters dressed in yellow, his party’s colour.
He was accompanied on the plane by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, his Maldivian Democratic party colleague who won an upset victory in September’s presidential election.
Solih triumphed in a landslide against Abdulla Yameen, a leader who eroded the Maldives’ nascent democratic institutions, jailed judges and muzzled the media, but who was unable to counter the surge of votes against him in the 23 September poll.
Nasheed, 51, was ferried from the country’s airport in a fleet of fishing boats, dinghies and jetskis to the capital, Malé, where hundreds of party supporters filled the main streets.
He is expected to make his first comments later on Thursday evening.
Nasheed was convicted in 2015 of arbitrarily arresting a sitting judge while in power, a crime under the country’s anti-terrorism statute, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. International observers said the trial lacked due process.
Scores of other opposition leaders, activists and judges were also jailed during Yameen’s rule – including the country’s chief justice after he quashed Nasheed’s conviction in February this year. The court reinstated the conviction shortly after.
An internationally brokered deal allowed Nasheed to leave the Maldives for the UK in January 2016 where his lawyer, Amal Clooney, helped negotiate his political asylum.
Since then he has been based in the nearby Sri Lankan capital of Colombo and served as a major opposition symbol, albeit banned from running for office and unable to return for fear of rearrest.
The Maldives supreme court stayed Nasheed’s conviction on Wednesday, clearing the way for his return. It is unclear what role he will play in the new government.
The Indian Ocean archipelago, which is located near key shipping channels, has become a strategic battleground between regional powers India and China. The new government says it will examine the estimated $1.5bn (£1.16bn) worth of contracts signed with Beijing, the debt for which is greater than 40% of the Maldives’ GDP.
Solih will be sworn in on 17 November. Among other changes, he is expected to take the Maldives back into the Commonwealth, which Yameen left in 2016 after the body called him out for various human rights abuses.