Legal Politics

High-Level Arrests Bring Maldives to Political Crisis

Opposition supporters in the Maldives urge the government to obey a Supreme Court order to release and retry political prisoners.

Opposition supporters in the Maldives urge the government to obey a Supreme Court order to release and retry political prisoners.Mohamed Sharuhaan/Associated Press

The arrest of two Supreme Court judges and a former president brought a simmering Maldives political crisis to a boil, sparking calls for the international community to step in to stem the turmoil in the island nation best known as a tourist hot spot.

The three men, including the chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court, were arrested after President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom declared a state of emergency late Monday, giving authorities broad powers. His steps to tighten control came in response to an order from the Supreme Court last week for the release and retrial of nine prisoners, among them Mr. Yameen’s fiercest political opponents. The court’s decision led to demonstrations by opposition parties. Three Maldives Supreme Court justices on Tuesday annulled their own order to free the opposition politicians.

The most high-profile convict on the court’s list was Mohamed Nasheed, who was elected president in 2008 when the country made a leap toward democracy after three decades of autocratic rule. He later received political asylum in the U.K., and his supporters hope for his return to the Maldives, paving the way for a run for office.

The rule of law has eroded in the Maldives in recent years. International organizations and human-rights groups have accused Mr. Yameen’s government of politically motivated trials of critics and opposition leaders, and of expanding curbs on free speech.

Mr. Nasheed was sentenced to a 13-year prison term on terrorism charges in 2015, but he was permitted to leave the country for medical treatment. Since the Supreme Court ruling last week, Mr. Nasheed has called for the president’s resignation.

On Tuesday, Mr. Nasheed urged neighboring India to send an envoy, backed by its military, to free the imprisoned judges and other prisoners. He also called on the U.S. to stop Maldives government officials from making financial transactions through American banks.

A spokesman for the president’s office, Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, said the solution to the political crisis “would have to be a Maldivian one.”

He said the Supreme Court’s ruling had raised “complex constitutional and legal questions” about the procedure and circumstances for retrial that needed to be ironed out between the government and the judiciary. The state of emergency was announced to maintain law and order, Mr. Shihab said.

Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, a prisoner the Supreme Court ordered released, urged neighboring India to send an envoy, backed by its military, to free the imprisoned judges and other prisoners.

Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, a prisoner the Supreme Court ordered released, urged neighboring India to send an envoy, backed by its military, to free the imprisoned judges and other prisoners.Photo:dinuka liyanawatte/Reuters

The two judges had been arrested in connection with a corruption investigation, unconnected to last week’s ruling, Mr. Shihab said.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was formerly president and is half brother of the current president, had pressed the government to release the prisoners. He was also arrested on Monday and has been accused of offenses under terrorism laws, and of bribery and attempting to overthrow the government, his lawyer said.

“It is clear that the emergency was designed to subdue the Supreme Court order and suspend legal safeguards against arrest,” said Maumoon Hameed, Mr. Gayoom’s lawyer and nephew. “This is a very dangerous situation.”

The U.S. said on Monday that it was “troubled and disappointed” by the developments in the Maldives and called on the government to respect the Supreme Court’s verdict. In a withering criticism of Mr. Yameen’s term in office, the State Department said he had “jailed or exiled every major opposition figure” and “weakened the institutions of government.”

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