AP Interview: Maldives ex-president says debt under audit

NEW DELHI — Ex-Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed said Thursday that the country is seeking to reduce the more than $3 billion he estimates it could owe China, some of which he said came in the form of "ill-gotten wealth" for the previous government of President Yameen Abdul Gayoom.

A close adviser to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and candidate for parliamentary elections in April, Nasheed spoke to The Associated Press at a climate change lecture in New Delhi, a day after Maldives' top prosecutor charged Yameen with money laundering.

The charges are linked to $1 million allegedly found in Yameen's bank account from a shady government deal to lease islands for tourist development in the Maldives, which is famous for its luxury resorts.

Yameen lost last September's presidential election after a five-year term during which he was accused of corruption and misrule.

Nasheed, who became the Maldives' first democratically elected president in 2008, said an investigation of Yameen for suspected international money laundering is continuing.

"We don't think that we have seen $3.4 billion of assets created," he said, "so therefore it will be very difficult for us to pay that back."

Nasheed, long an outspoken critic of the "debt trap" resulting from Chinese loans to the Indian Ocean archipelago nation, said an audit will determine "what actually came into the country."

Since Solih's surprise September win, the Maldives government has begun a shift away from China and toward its traditional ally, India, which allocated more than $80 million in aid to the Maldives in its interim 2019-2020 budget.

During Yameen's rule, Nasheed spent a year in prison on a terrorism conviction for ordering the detention of a top judge when he was president in 2012. He was given medical leave to travel to Britain, where he received political asylum.

Since returning home after Yameen's defeat, Nasheed, who held an underwater Cabinet meeting while president to draw attention to the threat posed by climate change to the Maldives, has helped steer the Solih government's low-carbon development strategy.

On Thursday, he said the government was soliciting bids for renewable energy projects, and that the country would not install any more diesel-powered generators for utilities.

The low-lying Maldives is also exploring technology to generate new growth of coral reefs, which protect the islands from storm surges and nurture fisheries.

"We are really not prepared to die," Nasheed said. "The Maldives have no intention of becoming some of the first victims of the climate crisis. Instead we are going to do everything in our power to keep our coral reefs intact and our heads above the water."

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