Legal Politics

In a Land of Pretty Islands, Ugly Politics Come to the Surface


MALÉ, Maldives — For an island nation considered a paradise, with its $2,000-a-night over-the-water bungalows and its Evian-clear seas, the Maldives is having some issues.

Climate change could obliterate these islands, most of which lie just a few feet above the Indian Ocean, and in recent years a new problem has swept in: Islamic radicalism, which has security services on edge and led to the stabbing death of a blogger after he dared to criticize extremists.

Now, a major political crisis is erupting between the president, the country’s highest court and the political opposition.

On Monday night, the government declared a state of emergency and sent troops to surround the Supreme Court, which had provoked the ire of President Abdulla Yameen last week when it overturned criminal convictions against nine of the president’s opponents and ordered that those in jail be freed.

So far, Mr. Yameen has refused to release the political prisoners. And now it appears that he is escalating the standoff, which is worrying tourists, foreign governments and countless Maldivians.

The Maldives Independent, a news website on the islands, reported late Monday that special operations security officers had broken into the court, raising fears that the president’s forces were going to arrest the Supreme Court judges who had holed up in their offices. Several dozen protesters were also converging on the court, and witnesses said the police were trying to chase away the crowd.

Since last week, when the Supreme Court ordered the release of the political prisoners, opposition rallies in the capital, Malé, have grown bigger — and rowdier. The crowds are demanding the prisoners’ release, and the police have fired tear gas at protesters. “Defend the Constitution!” protesters yell from an artificial beach that has become their nightly rallying ground.

The Maldives, one of the smallest nations in the world, with around 400,000 people, is usually not a big newsmaker. But the president’s authoritarian stance has deepened the rift between his government and Western nations that are watching closely.

Mr. Yameen may feel confident that he can ride out the trouble, having drawn close to China and Saudi Arabia, both of which have invested heavily in the Maldives; there was even a plan afoot last year to sell an atoll to the Saudis.

On Sunday, Atul Keshap, the American ambassador to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, asked on Twitter why members of the national legislature were “pepper sprayed in the streets and arrested on arrival at airport?”

“When will Government, police, & army implement Supreme Court orders” to free opposition politicians and restore their privileges, Mr. Keshap tweeted.

President Abdulla Yameen of the Maldives has developed closer ties to China and Saudi Arabia, both of which have invested heavily in his country.CreditMohamed Waheed/Reuters

The opposition says the president is scared to free the prisoners because he might lose his influence in Parliament, and possibly his job, if the opposition lawmakers were allowed to return.

It is hard to decipher exactly what is happening in the upper reaches of the government. Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, a government spokesman, said on Monday that the president did not intend to disobey the Supreme Court, but that “procedural measures” needed to be addressed.

But The Associated Press reported that the legal affairs minister, Azima Shakoor, had said the government did not believe that the high court order “can be enforced.”

Unlike the sparkling waters that attract tourists willing to spend thousand of dollars a night for a bungalow, it seems that little about the Maldives political equation is clean. Several Supreme Court judges have been accused of corruption, and suspicions are growing that the court has been bought with opposition money.

The court ruled that the nine dissidents had not been fairly tried. Two remain outside the country, including Mohamed Nasheed, a former president who has become an international celebrity because of his urgent — and many say brilliant — pleas to mitigate climate change. In 2009, he held a cabinet meeting underwater.

Mr. Nasheed has vowed to run again in elections scheduled for this year, and suddenly, thanks to the Supreme Court, the next election could be a fierce one.

Another figure to watch is Mohamed Nazim, a former defense minister who was sentenced to 11 years for arms smuggling and is now under house arrest. Many Maldivians say they believe he was framed, and he still commands deep support within the military, leading to concerns that the security services could split.

Fear of political turmoil and possibly street violence increased over the weekend after allies of the president accused the Supreme Court of plotting to impeach him.

So far, the court has not indicated what it will do if the president does not release the political prisoners. The security services arrested two more dissidents on Sunday as they flew into the Maldives.

The tensions undermine the tourism industry, the largest contributor to the country’s economy. In 2015, when the government declared a state of emergency because of fears of terrorism, tourist bookings dropped and economic growth plummeted.

Since last month, the State Department has warned travelers to the Maldives to exercise increased caution because of the threat of terrorism, and the British government issued an advisory on Friday that visitors to Malé should “avoid any protests or rallies.” On Monday, China advised its citizens to avoid the Maldives entirely until conditions stabilized. India did the same.

Some younger activists seemed invigorated by the standoff, however.

“For the first time in Maldivian history, a court has ruled in favor of the people and we will protest until it is enforced,’’ said Mickail Naseem, an opposition supporter. “I have never been more hopeful for change.”

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