Ten years ago was a time of optimism and change in the Maldives. Today is anything but.

Back then, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's grip on power was weakening. The long-time dictator had legalised political parties and decriminalised defamation. To many, it seemed that his flawed road map to democracy might actually work.

In 2008, the free and fair election of Mohamed Nasheed ended a 30-year dictatorship and a new constitution gave the impression that democracy was established. It wasn't.

The Maldives has had the same experience as other autocratic nations where the words "democratic reform" are pronounced. The reform process has been moulded to fit the interests of the political players and spawned a disfigured democracy.

Today, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's reclusive half-brother, Yameen, is in power. He has re-criminalised defamation, reintroduced the death sentence and undone many reforms.

"Since he came to power, he has been bribing the MPs, the judges, lawyers and everyone else," says Mohamed "Moho" Latheef, a businessman who helped the president with his embezzlement. He is now on the run in the UK.

"The whole system is corrupted," he says in secretly filmed video obtained by Al Jazeera .

'Systemic change needed'

Al Jazeera's investigation, Stealing Paradise , has revealed how the system was corrupted. It exposes the president and vice president coordinating the theft of millions of dollars from state coffers and then using part of the proceeds to buy complicity or silence. When it did not work, they used force.   

The country's anti-corruption commission was corrupted. The Auditor General and his family were threatened. The media was bought or bullied.

"The system has completely failed," says Zaheena Rasheed, the editor of Maldives Independent, a prominent English-language news website. "In such a small place where everyone knows everyone, it's very easy to corrupt the entire system."

"The last 10 years have destroyed Maldives," says Aishath Velezinee, a fiercely independent campaigner for judicial reform. "I feel very sad to see that the people who have come up with hopes of democracy, the people who were really giving everything they had, their time, their life for years, to reform the system, are still going around calling for freedom and justice."

Velezinee blames Nasheed's four-year government, which was abruptly ended with his bloodless overthrow in February 2012, for failing to bring in the necessary safeguards for long-term democracy.

"There seemed to be no attention to the necessity for systemic change and state building and those things that were in the constitution," she complains. "It seemed like Gayoom goes out, a new president comes in, it's democracy." 

While criticising Nasheed for not introducing root-and-branch reform, she acknowledges that his power was undermined by a politicised judiciary. He also inherited a deeply entrenched, undemocratic system set up by his predecessor, based on patronage.

"Gayoom's system had everything," she observes. "The laws could change depending on [the[ person. Jobs were created depending on [the] person and jobs disappeared, depending on [the] person. That system has not changed since Nasheed was removed in 2012."

Unholy alliance forms opposition

These disturbing developments in the Indian Ocean state are being closely monitored by the international community. In August, American and European governments spoke out about the fast-deteriorating situation in the Maldives expressing " concern about the erosion of fundamental freedoms and the institutions of democracy, including freedom of assembly and press". The United Nations also weighed in, describing the country's new defamation laws as " crippling freedom of expression".

The political landscape now appears about as warped as the system on which it rests. On the one side, the isolated and paranoid president and his Progressive Party of the Maldives; on the other, the Maldives United Opposition, an unholy alliance of nearly all the out-of-power politicians, many of whom have questionable pasts themselves.

Nasheed has allied himself with Yameen's two former vice presidents, Mohamed Jameel and Ahmed Adeeb.

Adeeb's phone data reveals him to be a man willing to steal, bribe, hack, threaten and illegally purchase a weapon , among other things.

Despite all the evidence, Nasheed is still willing to call Adeeb a "victim".

"President Yameen can pluck and pluck any boy who is in his early 30s and corrupt him," he says. "He's just one of the victims. But of course we need to investigate who did what."

When we asked directly whether Adeeb was a victim or someone who should take responsibility for his criminal actions, the former president was ambivalent: "I've never found these things so black and white."

The failed system's architect

Adding to the complications, the elder statesman in the background, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, is the architect of this failed system and leader of the PPM. He has come out in opposition to his half-brother, fracturing the party.

He is in talks with Nasheed over an alliance. We understand Gayoom demanded $100,000 from Nasheed earlier this year, as part of those negotiations. He claimed the money would show goodwill. Sources say Nasheed paid at least one installment of $50,000, although he denies the allegation.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication, but issued a tweet in response to the allegations.

Phone data from Ahmed Adeeb, obtained by Al Jazeera, also shows Gayoom's two sons in receipt of large amounts of money from Adeeb, and a regular mixing of so-called "party funds" and money stolen from the state.

Gayoom himself writes to Adeeb on October 30, 2014, begging for money for "party funds".

"Dear NR Adeeb," he writes, "today is last month n we need funds for salaries etc. Can u pls help? Thank u."

It is all evidence of a deeply damaged political system, borne out of a 30-year Gayoom dictatorship and now kept alive by a cabal of corrupt politicians and officials who, the evidence shows, are more interested in money than building strong, independent institutions that will keep the country clean.

The ones who lose out are the Maldivian people, whose money is stolen and dished out as bribes.

"In no other country would you find that in one lagoon, you have an island that is catering exclusively to tourists with all the best services of the first world," says Rasheed. "Then, right next to it, where the Maldivians live, it's a slum.

"There's no fresh water. There's no education. There's no hospital. This is what it's like for a majority of Maldivians, who live in the atolls. Then in the capital Male, you have sky-high rents but terrible services."

"The crises of the past couple of years have shown us that we need a system that works for everyone," says Rasheed. "We need checks and balances more than ever."

Source: Al Jazeera News