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Maldives president declares emergency, arrests judges

Soldiers in riot gear cordoned off streets leading to the Supreme Court [Mohamed Sharuhaan/AP]

Security forces in the Maldives have arrested two Supreme Court judges and an opposition leader hours after President Abdulla Yameen declared a 15-day state of emergency in the island nation.

Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Judge Ali Hameed were arrested in the early hours of Tuesday, the police said in a post on Twitter. Their detention comes amid a bitter row between the top court and the president over the release of several imprisoned opposition politicians.

Yameen declared a state of emergency in the Indian Ocean archipelago on Monday, saying a Supreme Court ruling overturning terrorism convictions against nine of his opponents was illegal.

He sent in security forces to storm the Supreme Court building and ordered the arrest of his half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has sided with the opposition.

Reading out Yameen’s emergency decree on state television, Legal Affairs Minister Azima Shakoor said the top court’s verdict on February 1 has “resulted in the disruption of the functions of the executive power, and the infringement of national security and public interest”.

“The government does not believe that the Supreme Court ruling to release the political prisoners can be enforced,” she added.

The decree gives security forces sweeping powers to make arrests and curtails the authority of the judiciary.

Yameen, who critics accuse of corruption, misrule and rights abuses, has also suspended the country’s parliament, where the opposition have a majority.

Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s exiled former president, called the state of emergency “tantamount to a declaration of martial law in the Maldives”.

The decree is “unconstitutional and illegal,” he said in a statement. “Nobody in the Maldives is required to, nor should, follow this unlawful order”.

Eva Abdulla, an opposition member of parliament, called the emergency declaration “a very desperate move”.

It is “nothing but a purge of the political opposition, the judiciary and the parliament,” she said in a post on Twitter.

Taking the Supreme Court

Soon after the emergency declaration on Monday evening, soldiers forced their way into the court building, a spokesman for the Supreme Court said on Twitter.

Husnu Al Suood, president of the Maldives Bar Association and a former attorney general of the Maldives, tweeted that security forces had locked up the Supreme Court with the judges inside.

Judges are “without any food now,” Suood said, adding that the chief justice asked the public “to protect him and the institution”.

Soldiers and police in riot gear set up barricades and cordoned off the streets leading to the court building, according to witnesses, as police used pepper spray to disperse protesters outside the court.

Gayoom, who was arrested late on Monday evening, told supporters he will not “give up on working for reform”.

“I have not anything to warrant my arrest. I urge you to remain steadfast in your resolve, too,” he said in a video message posted on Twitter.

The 80-year-old, who ruled Maldives for 30 years, joined forces with his former rival, Nasheed, last year following an acrimonious power struggle within the ruling party.

His son, Faris, a member of parliament, has been detained for more than six months, also on charges of bribery.

Earlier in the day, opposition members of parliament urged foreign intervention, calling on the international community “to impress upon the government of Maldives the need to respect the rule of law, and implement last Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling that ordered the release of political leaders and the reinstatement of 12 opposition MPs”.

They also called for “all necessary measures … to hold government officials accountable for violations of national and international law”.

Tensions “could escalate to civil unrest and incite violence across the country”, they warned.

The United Nations, European Union, and several foreign governments – including India, the US and UK – have urged Yameen to comply with the Supreme Court’s order.

The United States urged government restraint on Monday.

“The Maldivian government and military must respect the rule of law, freedom of expression, and democratic institutions. The world is watching,” the White House National Security Council said in a Twitter post.

Rights group Amnesty International denounced the government’s “appalling track-record of suppressing freedom of expression and any form of opposition”.

“This [emergency] cannot become a licence for further repression,” Omar Waraich, the group’s deputy South Asia director, said on Twitter.

China, India and the US have issued travel advisories for the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago better known for its upmarket tourism.

But the Ministry of Tourism said the state of emergency does not “force any restrictions on travelling to or within the Maldives”.

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