A WHITEWASHED cottage tucked away in The Friary is now the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of the Maldives.

It is also the home of businessman David Hardingham, and an opening ceremony on Saturday saw an extraordinary gathering in the suburban street outside, as a flag fluttered overhead.

The Maldives High Commissioner, Dr Farah Faizal, came down to Salisbury from London with a delegation, meeting up with MP John Glen, and everyone adjourned to the back garden, where they stood to attention while the Maldivian national anthem was played and speeches were made.

Salisbury might seem an unlikely location for a consulate, but as a message from the Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed explained, “for over a year it was the home of the Maldivian democracy struggle”.

The president, known as Anni, became a family friend of the Hardinghams in his schooldays at Dauntsey’s in West Lavington.

His island home in the Indian Ocean was under a dictatorship and as an opposition activist he was repeatedly locked up and tortured. Amnesty International adopted him as a Prisoner of Conscience.

In late 2003 he led a group who fled to Britain and were granted asylum. For five years Maldividans lived in Salisbury, setting up the Maldivian Democratic Party, lobbying politicians – former MP Robert Key was a supporter - and making radio broadcasts home.

“It is such a beautiful city, and the people were so hospitable to us,” said the president. “It will always have a special place in our hearts.”

Mr Hardingham, whose family own Dinghams Cookshop and Fireplaces, helped the group settle in and founded the Friends of Maldives, which now sends volunteer teachers and health professionals to the republic.

Mr Nasheed returned home in 2005, continued campaigning, and in 2008, following the first free elections, became president.

Mr Glen, it turns out, played a key role.

“The president is someone I know quite well,” he explained. “He’s a very charismatic figure. Through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is sponsored by the Foreign Office, I was sent out there twice when he was a candidate, to run a policy workshop for him and his Cabinet, and to advise them on the construction of their manifesto.

“It’s the smallest Muslim country in the world, and has major problems, particularly with heroin addiction among young people. The contrast between the affluence of the mega resorts and the desperate poverty I encountered was quite amazing.”