Statement by Madam Laila Ali at the Press Conference on UN WGAD Opinion

Today is an extraordinary day – for me, for my husband and for our family.

We are extremely grateful to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention for its decision.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank our international legal team, and our local lawyers, for all their work on this case. They are all working pro-bono, and my family and I are deeply grateful for their support.

We were unable to obtain an independent or impartial ruling from a domestic court in the Maldives.

And that’s why we took this case to the UN Working Group.

Its independence, impartiality and professionalism are not in question.

My husband started his career as a journalist, after graduating from Liverpool John Moores University.

He appreciates how important your work is, and has asked me to thank you for coming here today and taking an interest in his story.

After starting work as a reporter in 1989, he was frequently arrested and jailed because of what he wrote.

For him, as a journalist, life had a predictable routine: he would write something critical of the regime, he would be arrested, imprisoned, sometimes tortured, and then eventually released – usually after international pressure. Then the cycle would repeat itself again.

In 1999, my husband was elected as a Member of Parliament. He was a very outspoken MP, at a time when very few people dared to challenge those in power.

Less than two years after his election to parliament, he was arrested again, on politically motivated charges.

He was sent to prison just two weeks before our youngest daughter was born. I cannot tell you how difficult that was for us.

My husband could have relented. He could have given up. He could have submitted to the dictatorship. But that’s not who he is.

He always wanted a better Maldives, a democratic Maldives. A Maldives in which our children would not have to grow up living in fear.

In 2008, he succeeded. The Maldives held its first, free and fair election.

He became the first democratically elected president in the history of our country.

And he brought about real change: scrapping draconian laws on the media and freedom of speech, as well as introducing things such as an old age pension, and a social safety net.

My husband has always been a committed family man. We’ve been married for 21 years – in fact, when he was sentenced in March this year, it fell on our 21st wedding anniversary.

We have two daughters, aged 18 and 13, and he’s always made time for the family.

He taught our daughters to read and write.

Even when he became President, he made the time to help them with their homework – with mathematics and history.

When he’s not working, or with family, he usually has his head buried in a book.

He loves to read, as well as write. In fact, he’s written three books himself.

He has always taken a keen interest in history, as well as politics.

Unlike my husband, I am not a politician.

Until his arrest this year, I’ve never been engaged in politics.

Even when he was President, I tried to stay out of the political fray, concentrating instead on my own work at the World Health Organization.

But now my husband has been silenced, I feel compelled to speak out on his behalf.

And every time I speak to him, he tells me the same thing: this isn’t only about him.

It’s not only about his sentence. It’s not only about his predicament.

The leadership of the entire political opposition is either in jail, or under threat.

And there are some 1,700 other people facing serious charges for their non-violent activism.

Most people outside Maldives know my husband for his work on climate change.

Everyone seems to remember that cabinet meeting he held underwater!

But inside Maldives, most people know him for his role in bringing democracy to our country.

Even people who have never voted for him acknowledge the role he played in our struggle for political freedoms.

Now, those freedoms are under threat.

The Working Group decision is specifically about my husband’s case, but he is merely a symbol of a much wider crackdown.

The Maldives has returned to its dark past: the Gayoom family is back in power, and my husband is back in jail.

Journalists are being routinely beaten up, some have been disappeared.

Last month, a member of our legal team was stabbed in the head in Male’ in broad daylight. Nobody has been arrested for this crime.

Dissidents are in prison or in exile, and the Government is saying there is nothing anyone, anywhere can do to stop them.

I am very pleased with this Working Group verdict.

And I am especially pleased that the Maldives Government so fully engaged with the UN Working Group process.

The Government fought this case every step of the way.

They hired a high-profile team of British lawyers, including the wife of a former British Prime Minister, to advocate on their behalf.

The Government’s lawyers vigorously fought to have my husband’s conviction upheld.

They worked tirelessly to ensure he would spend the next 13 years of his life in prison.

They submitted to the Working Group a one hundred and eleven page brief, which included 45 annexes.

Working hand-in-hand with the Maldivian Government, the lawyers held numerous press conferences about my husband’s case.

But in the end, the Government lost the case at the Working Group, which has ruled my husband is being detained illegally – in violation of international law.

In fact, the Working Group found that the Government was unable to even demonstrate the legal basis for the charges against him.

Because the Government so fully engaged with the Working Group process, naturally we expect it to fully comply by the Working Group’s ruling.

Beyond the Working Group’s important decision, I was also very pleased to see last week that the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has encouraged the Government to free my husband, and grant him clemency.

Nobody is quite sure how many times my husband has been arrested. To be honest with you, I’ve lost count.

But it is well over a dozen times.

The regime has tried to break him so many times.

But they’ve never succeeded. And I’m confident they won’t succeed this time.

Despite where he is, he remains strong.

He is in good spirits, and he’s determined to continue his struggle for democracy in the Maldives.

These last few months without him have been so incredibly hard for us as a family.

But today, with this ruling, we know we’ve taken a big step forward.

The Government is not going to make this easy. In fact, they have just hired another firm of expensive lobbyists.

But we won’t give up, we won’t rest, and we won’t stop.

We will keep going. We will continue this fight until he is a free man, and he can come home.

Thank you.

What do you think?

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