In a controversial decision, which should be of concern to India’s national security managers, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives has accepted a request from the US Government to re-settle in Maldivian territory two terrorism suspects from the Guantanamo Bay military detention centre in Cuba. Talks in this regard have been going on with the US authorities since December last.
2.Under a policy initiated by the administration of President Barack Obama after it assumed office in January,2009, it is pledged to close down the military detention centre after transferring to normal judicial custody for trial in US territory according to the normal laws of the land those against whom there is evidence to justify a trial and transferring others against whom there is no such evidence either to the countries to which they belonged before they were arrested post-9/11 or to other countries which are prepared to accept them.
3. The implementation of this policy has slowed down due to the following reasons:
Opposition to bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, to New York for trial. Some of the suspects from Afghanistan and Yemen, who were released and re-settled in their country because there was no evidence against them to warrant a trial, took to terrorism after their release due to their anger against their alleged ill-treatment in the detention centre by the US. There is a danger that many others, who were arrested by the US authorities on mere suspicion without any evidence of their involvement in terrorism might similarly take to terrorism after their release due to their anger against the US. Yemenis, Pakistanis and Afghans constitute a bulk of such suspects in the detention centre. Difficulty in finding countries which would accept those whom the US did not want to send to their home country such as the Uighur suspects. China has been demanding that the Uighurs should be handed over to it for trial. Human rights organizations have been opposing this due to fears that they might be sentenced to death and executed by the Chinese authorities. While willing host- countries have been found to re-settle some of the Uighurs, others are without a willing host-country and hence continue to be at Guantanamo Bay.
4. Neither the Maldives nor the US have revealed the nationalities of the two suspects, who are to be transferred to the Maldives for re-settlement from Guantanamo Bay. Among the suspects detained at the centre in Cuba was a Maldivian national Ibrahim Fauzee who was picked up in Karachi in May 2002 and transferred to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre because he was living with an Al Qaeda suspect. He contended that he was not aware that the person with whom he was staying in Karachi had links with Al Qaeda. No evidence of involvement in terrorism could be found against him and he was reportedly released in 2005. His present whereabouts are not known. Nor is it known whether he is one of the two suspects to be accepted by the Maldives.
5. Since the Government of President Nasheed has been developing close relations with China, it is doubtful whether he would accept Uighurs since that could make Beijing unhappy. India should have legitimate cause for worry if under US pressure and offer of money, the Maldivian Government re-settles in its territory Pakistani or Afghan or Yemeni suspects. There is a strong possibility that these suspects, in their anger against the US, would take to terrorism from Maldivian territory where the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) has already set up a presence. The LET has been recruiting Maldivian nationals and allegedly training them in its camps in Pakistan and giving them exposure to the jihad in the Af-Pak region.
6. The Maldives, which has many uninhabited islands, could attract Pakistani and Al Qaeda terrorists interested in sea-borne terrorist attacks similar to Mumbai 26/11. This would seriously add to India’s counter-terrorism concerns. It is doubtful whether the National Security Service (NSS) of the Maldives would be able to keep these suspects under effective surveillance and prevent them from taking to reprisal terrorism. The presence of these suspects in Maldivian territory would pose a threat not only to India and Sri Lanka, but also to the internal security of the Maldives itself.
7. If the two suspects being accepted by the Maldives are local nationals, India has no grounds for protesting. But if they are non-Maldivians, India has every reason to protest and request the Male Government not to accept them.
8. It is not clear whether the Maldivian Government kept India in the picture about its talks with the US on these suspects. If it had, India should have immediately advised it against accepting them. If it had not, it is a matter for surprise that President Nasheed kept India in the dark about a matter which could affect India’s national security.
9. The opposition members in the Maldives have strongly criticized the decision of President Nasheed on national security grounds. The National Security Committee of the Parliament is to discuss the matter on May 19.
( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently , Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: email@example.com )