It is said Hollywood never lets the facts come in the way of a good story, and recently in the Maldives, the small tropical island nation where I serve as Vice President, we witnessed some of this mythmaking.
Usually it’s our golden beaches and clear blue seas that are covered in the media; instead we were onlookers to the press coverage of lawyer Amal Clooney, the wife of Hollywood actor George Clooney, who with her legal team, PR executives and accompanying journalists came to visit former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed. He is serving a sentence for, while in office, ordering the arrest of a judge who had released one of his political critics. They say he should just be let off, and the legal process should just be ignored.
In the spirit of this approach of pressuring the government and courts through the media, he has chosen not to formerly appeal his conviction, even when he had the opportunity to do so. Indeed, his legal team led by Mrs. Clooney left the Maldives the day before the High Court announced the time for appeal had run its course, leaving in no doubt that their visit was purely for the purposes of publicity.
This is not the first, and unlikely to be the last time that Hollywood has pronounced on the guilt or innocence of those who it dislikes or favors and tried to harness the court of public opinion when the legal facts are wanting. Indeed, “celebrity law” is becoming a new trend: Institutions such as the International Criminal Court at The Hague have gained notoriety for the number of its celebrity endorsers almost in counterweight to the paucity of its convictions.
Whereas once campaigning against poverty and supporting equality was the mainstay of Hollywood charity, its new, favored battleground is the courtroom, and the passing down of commentary on the guilt or innocent of others. More darkly, the judgement of Hollywood too often goes against the spirit of the law: you are condemned as guilty before innocence can be proved, and their moral judgement outweighs any of the legal necessities that are a must in a fair trial.
This is the approach that they have taken toward the Nasheed case. In this Hollywood script the current government, regardless of the fact that we were democratically elected above Nasheed’s party in a contest dubbed as free and fair by the U.S. and British Commonwealth, are the autocratic villains. Nasheed, they venture, is the freedom-loving innocent.
Yet while celebrity PR can weave a good story, the facts of the case against former President Nasheed remain straightforward. He has acknowledged both in an article in the New York Times and in an interview with the BBC’s Hardtalk program that he ordered the army to arrest the judge. The legal proceedings against him merely re-stated the facts of the incident that he himself had confirmed.
But Mr. Nasheed has celebrity friends, gained when in office after spending taxpayers’ money on PR stunts such as an underwater cabinet meeting in protest against global warming. Still, despite this promotion nothing was done – such as addressing the serious challenges our islands have with waste disposal – under his presidency. But the publicity rolled on: He even went so far as to arrange for a Hollywood movie to be made about his bid to save the planet. “Unabashedly pro-Nasheed” is how the New York Times described the film; the Carnegie Council, the campaign group for ethics in international affairs described it and his other PR activities as “Nasheed’s publicity stunts.”
What publicists cannot do, however, are change the facts in a legal case, or indeed the facts about a country, its governance or its democracy. Climate change campaigner or not, Nasheed broke the law of the land and no one – not even a former president – should be immune from it if wrongdoing has been committed. Yet his international supporters are trying, by attacking the country instead.
Last month George Clooney said in an interview that the Maldives “is a dangerous place to be right now.” Yet, according to the World Bank political stability and the absence of violence improved when Nasheed left office, and was in fact at its lowest ebb when he was president. Another member of the legal team for Nasheed described him as “the Maldives’ Nelson Mandela”: but Mandela did not order the arrest of judges. He said: “real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.” After his arrest Nasheed called on Maldivians “to please sacrifice everything – even your families – and wear your lives on your back as you fight for this cause”: they, he said, should take the fall for him.
Now, in an attempt to punish both the democratically elected Government and people of the Maldives for merely enforcing their own laws Nasheed’s legal team are threatening to lobby for international sanctions. These would hurt not only those in the administration but, more painfully, the citizens of the Maldives who depend on the tourism industry for their livelihoods. They would have a whole nation suffer for the purposes of publicity and because the legal arguments in favor of Nasheed are untenable.
The people of the Maldives and the world are being confronted with arguments that amount to little more than a Hollywood script. None of this is helping our country; the rule of law and respect for the legal process is particularly important, especially in a young democracy such as we have in the Maldives, and they must not be undermined. Yet that doesn’t seem to matter, for in this saga that has pitted Hollywood against the law, it’s clear that the fewer the facts in their possession the stronger are their opinions.
The author is Vice President of the Republic of Maldives.