COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — The exiled former leader of the Maldives said Monday that this year's presidential election could be the last chance to extricate his country from increasing Chinese influence, which he described as a land grab in the guise of investments in island development.
Mohamed Nasheed told reporters in Sri Lanka's capital that current President Yameen Abdul Gayoom has opened the doors to Chinese investment without any regard for procedure or transparency.
"A large emerging power is busy buying up the Maldives," Nasheed said, referring to China.
China is "buying up our lands, buying up our key infrastructure and effectively buying up our sovereignty," he said.
China considers the Maldives a key cog in the Indian Ocean in its "One Belt One Road" project along ancient trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia. The initiative is Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature project and envisages building ports, railways and roads to expand trade in a vast arc of countries across Asia, Africa and Europe.
Nasheed is disqualified from contesting the presidency this year due to a prison sentence. He is now living in exile in Britain after going there for medical treatment while in prison.
Nasheed said he is awaiting a decision from the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which he hopes will ask the Maldivian government to allow him to run in the election. His trial on terrorism charges and 13-year prison sentence in 2015 drew widespread international criticism for an alleged lack of due process.
The U.N. working group on arbitrary detention said Nasheed's sentencing was unlawful.
Nasheed became the archipelago state's first democratically elected president 10 years ago, ending a 30-year autocratic rule. However, he resigned in 2012 after public protests for ordering the arrest of a senior judge.
He lost the 2013 presidential election to Gayoom.
Maldives' democratic gains have largely diminished under Gayoom's presidency, with all of his potential election opponents either jailed or in exile. Nasheed said the opposition parties are in discussion to field a common candidate if he is unable to run.
"President Yameen wants a coronation; not an election. We won't let that happen," he said.
In a statement, the Maldives government accused Nasheed of spreading "fabricated facts and statements in the hope of gaining personal political benefit."
The statement added: "It is certainly disappointing that false allegations and numbers are thrown at the Maldives, and its people in a manner which can create misunderstandings about the real Maldives."
The statement called the Maldives "one of the most promising destinations for investment and trade in this region" because of government efforts to remove barriers to free and competitive trade.
It also said the government will ensure that the "upcoming Presidential elections will be transparent, fair" and uphold international standards.
Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.