The Maldives\’ opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed, who is serving a 13-year jail term following a controversial trial, has been given permission to travel to Britain for surgery, the government said Saturday.
Nasheed, the country\’s first democratically elected leader in 2008, has complained of a spinal cord problem requiring specialist surgery that is not available in the small Indian Ocean archipelago.
"The government of the Republic of Maldives has granted permission to former president Mohamed Nasheed to travel to the United Kingdom to undertake a surgery at his request," the foreign ministry said in a brief statement.
The concession was on the "condition (Nasheed) serve the remainder of the sentence upon return to the Maldives after the surgery", it said.
Nasheed\’s lawyers had demanded for months that he be allowed specialist treatment abroad.
A spokeswoman for the ex-leader\’s Maldivian Democratic Party said lawyers had concluded a previously arranged meeting with Nasheed at a prison island near the capital Saturday when the hardline government\’s surprise announcement came.
"We have seen the statement from the government, but we want to see it in writing. we want to see what the conditions are," Nasheed\’s lawyer Hassan Latheef told AFP by telephone.
"We have requested a special meeting with president Nasheed at the prison tomorrow (Sunday) to discuss this development."
The 48-year-old was confined to jail in March 2015 on terror charges relating to the arrest of an allegedly corrupt judge in 2012, when he was still in power.
The UN has said his trial was seriously flawed and that he should be released and provided compensation for wrongful detention.
The government of President Abdulla Yameen has refused to accept the UN ruling and is resisting international pressure to release Nasheed.
His lengthy jail sentence was commuted to house arrest in July, but two months later police took him back to prison, in a surprise move that drew fresh criticism from the UN and the United States.
London-based barrister Amal Clooney is on the legal team pressuring the government of Yameen to unconditionally release Nasheed or face targeted sanctions from the international community.
The sudden change of heart by the Maldivian government came amid a flurry of high-level diplomatic activity involving neighbouring India, Sri Lanka and former colonial power Britain.
India\’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar visited Male for talks with the government and stopped over in Colombo this week while Sri Lanka\’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera made an unscheduled visit to Male on Thursday.
Britain\’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hugo Swire was due in Male Saturday shortly after the government\’s concession was initially announced on Twitter by the Maldivian foreign ministry.
None of the countries has commented publicly on what was discussed during the visits, but diplomatic sources told AFP that backroom manoeuvring had contributed to the decision to allow Nasheed to travel.
President Yameen, a half brother of former strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled for 30 years until his defeat at the first multi-party elections by Nasheed in 2008, has cracked down on dissent and arrested political opponents.
Yameen has said that a blast aboard his speed boat in which his wife and two others were injured in September was an attempt to assassinate him.
He sacked his defence minister and impeached his deputy president Ahmed Adeeb over allegedly attempting to kill him.
In July, Yameen sacked his then deputy and running mate at the 2013 elections, Mohamed Jameel, on a charge of treason.
Jameel remains in self-imposed exile abroad while several opposition activists are either in jail or face prosecution for alleged anti-government activities.
Nasheed was forced out in what he called a coup led by the military and police in February 2012. Since then, the Maldives, a leading destination for upmarket tourists, has remained in political turmoil.