Maldives ex-leader claims Chinese land grabbing; government denies

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Exiled former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, who is fighting for the right to contest a presidential poll this year, said on Monday that land grabbing by China was threatening peace and stability in the Indian Ocean.

Maldives' former president Mohamed Nasheed speaks during a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

However, the administration of President Abdulla Yameen said Nasheed, who has been in exile on medical grounds from a 13-year jail sentence, should name the islands grabbed by China if he knew of any land grabbing.

The island nation has been mired in political unrest since its first democratically elected leader Nasheed was ousted in 2012. He was later sentenced to 13 years in jail on terrorism charges after a trial denounced as hasty and unfair by the United Nations human rights chief.

“There is land grab going on that threatens not just the Maldives, but the peace and the stability of the entire region. A large, emerging power is busy buying up the Maldives,” Nasheed told reporters in Colombo. When asked to name the power to which he was referring, he said: “China”.

“None of these agreements are transparent. They did not go through the proper tendering process and therefore the actual figures we must learn. I’m very sure about the process of land grab,” he when asked about the extent of the land grab by China.

He said at least 16-17 small islands had been seized, though he did not name any of them or give an idea of the amount of territory grabbed by China.

“It always starts with a real estate project, but it can be turned into something (else) ... that China has actually grabbed more land.”

Mohamed Hussain Shareef, Maldives ambassador to Sri Lanka responding to Nasheed’s allegation, said the archipelago’s constitution prevents anybody owning land in the Indian Ocean island nation without large investments behind them.

“Investors can own land only by investing over $1 billion according to a law enacted two years back. Nobody has invested that amount so far. In terms of leasing, Chinese companies would have leased a handful of resorts, less than those leased by Thailand,” he told Reuters.

“If Nasheed says 16-17 islands, he should name at least one island which is grabbed by China.”

Nasheed is not eligible to contest the 2018 presidential poll as he was arrested under an anti-terrorism law. He would require a presidential pardon to do so, but he needs to serve one-third of his 13-year sentence, legal experts say.

Nasheed once held an underwater cabinet meeting during his 2008-12 tenure to bring global attention to focus on the impact of climate change on the Maldives.

He has sought U.N. help to restore his political rights, which he says were removed illegally on trumped up terrorism charges.

He expects to contest the 2018 presidential elections once his political rights restored.

Reporting by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Richard Balmforth