LONDON - The imprisonment of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed symbolizes a turn toward autocracy and extremism by a Muslim nation with the world's highest per-capita level of recruitment to the Islamic State group, a human rights lawyer said Monday.
Nasheed is serving a 13-year sentence after a court found him guilty of terrorism for ordering the arrest of a senior judge when he was president three years ago. On Friday, a U.N. tribunal found that Nasheed had been unlawfully imprisoned and should be freed.
Speaking at a news conference alongside Nasheed's wife Laila Ali, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney said the ex-president's detention was "part of a much larger crackdown on freedom and the rule of law."
"The Maldives is currently shifting away from an alliance with the U.S. [toward] a new partnership with China and Saudi Arabia," she said.
"It is also shifting away from religious moderation towards more extremism. And it's actually estimated that today on a per capita basis the Maldives has the highest rate of recruitment to ISIS," she added, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.
Clooney is part of an international legal team acting for Nasheed that is seeking sanctions and travel bans on senior Maldives officials unless the former president is freed.
After hearing submissions from lawyers for Nasheed and the Maldives government, the U.N. working group on arbitrary detention concluded that Nasheed hadn't received a fair trial and said his prosecution was probably politically motivated.
The Maldives foreign ministry has called the U.N. opinion premature and says it will not act on its recommendations.
Nasheed became the Maldives' first democratically-elected president in 2008. His election ended 30 years of authoritarian rule by the half-brother of current President Yameen Abdul Gayoom.
He became well known internationally for holding a Cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat from rising sea levels to the low-lying Indian Ocean archipelago, which has a population of 350,000.
Nasheed resigned in 2012 amid protests over the arrest of the judge and after losing support from the military and police.
Nasheed's U.S. attorney, Jared Genser, said the legal team was meeting with politicians and diplomats from around the world, urging sanctions and travel bans on Maldives officials.
Clooney said the lawyers weren't yet calling for a tourism boycott, but "I don't think we would exclude it."