Maldives top court reverses decision to free jailed politicians citing president’s ‘concerns’

Leader Yameen attracted international censure for refusing to comply with last week’s ruling to release his opponents and to scrap the conviction of exiled opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed, who wants to run in coming elections

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2018, 8:18pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2018, 9:13pm

The Maldives president on Wednesday welcomed a Supreme Court move to reinstate the convictions of high-profile political prisoners after he arrested two top judges and declared a state of emergency, plunging the upmarket holiday paradise into chaos.

President Abdulla Yameen attracted international censure for refusing to comply with last week’s court order to release his jailed political opponents and to quash the conviction of exiled opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed, who is again pushing for change a decade after he was first elected in the country’s first democratic elections.

Nasheed has said he will run against Yameen in presidential elections due later this year, and the court’s ruling had appeared to pave the way for his return to the honeymoon islands.

But late on Tuesday the remaining three judges reinstated his controversial 2015 terrorism conviction and reversed their earlier order to free eight other political prisoners.

A statement on Yameen’s website said his administration welcomed the court’s U-turn, which the judges had said was made “in light of the concerns raised by the president”.

The 15-day state of emergency imposed earlier this week gives the government sweeping powers to arrest and detain individuals and curtails the powers of the judiciary and the legislature.

Maldives Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and another judge were arrested at dawn on Tuesday after security forces stormed the court complex in the capital Male. In a televised address to the nation hours later, Yameen said the judges were part of a plot to overthrow him.

“I had to declare a national emergency because there was no other way to investigate these judges,” he said.

“We had to find out how thick the plot or coup was.”

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Yameen has had almost all the political opposition jailed since he came to power, in an escalating crackdown on dissent.

This week he ordered the arrest of his estranged half-brother, former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who last year sided with the opposition.

The 80-year-old Gayoom – president for 30 years until the country’s first democratic elections in 2008 – was taken from his home in the capital Male around midnight on Monday, hours after the emergency was declared.

Nasheed, meanwhile, has appealed to regional superpower India to send troops to the strategically located archipelago, which has grown increasingly close to regional rival China under Yameen’s leadership.

“President Yameen has illegally declared martial law and overrun the state. We must remove him from power,” Nasheed on Tuesday.

“We would like the Indian government to send an envoy, backed by its military, to free the judges and the political detainees.”

In a statement, India said it was “disturbed” by the president’s latest moves and was monitoring the situation.

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Nasheed spent decades building a pro-democracy movement in exile before making history in 2008 by beating Gayoom – Asia’s longest-serving leader at the time.

In the years that followed, the charismatic young president won international renown as a campaigner against climate change and rising sea levels, which threaten the low-lying Indian Ocean archipelago.

In 2009, he held an underwater cabinet meeting in an effort to press the world to cap carbon emissions. He also raised eyebrows by announcing his intention to buy a new homeland to relocate the Maldives’ entire population.

But he was pushed aside in 2012 after weeks of protests against the sacking of a judge, and a year later lost a controversial run-off against Yameen. In 2015, he again fled into exile after he was convicted and jailed on a terrorism charge widely seen as politically motivated. His tumultuous life in prison and politics have since earned comparisons to Nelson Mandela.

In early 2017, he announced from Colombo his intention to challenge Yameen for the presidency even though stepping foot in the Maldives would result in his arrest.