The Maldives is in a crisis. President, Abdulla Yameen, has declared a state of emergency as heavily armed troops stormed the country’s top court and a former president was arrested in a deepening political crisis.
The archipelago was plunged into chaos on Thursday when the supreme court called for the release of nine imprisoned opposition politicians, ruling that their trials were politically motivated and flawed. The government refused to implement the ruling, prompting a wave of protests in the capital, Malé, with angry clashes between police and demonstrators.
Late on Monday night, soldiers forced their way into the supreme court building and police officers arrested former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom at his home.
Shortly before he was taken in by the police, Gayoom posted a video message to his supporters on Twitter. “I have not done anything to be arrested,” he said. “I urge you to remain steadfast in your resolve too. We will not give up on the reform work we are doing.”
Separately, troops entered the supreme court, where judges were taking shelter. “Nobody can go out or come in,” Husnu Al Suood, the president of Maldives Bar Association and a former attorney general, told Reuters. “The emergency means the supreme court activities are suspended and nobody is in charge of judiciary,” he said.
Two of the country’s four supreme court justices were arrested. The police announced on Twitter the arrests of justices Abdulla Saeed and Ali Hamid and another judicial officer Tuesday morning. The charges were not specified.
Gayoom is Yameen’s half-brother and ruled the island nation for 30 years until 2008, but is now a vocal critic of the current president. Gayoom’s successor, Mohamed Nasheed, presided over a brief flourishing of multiparty democracy before being controversially ousted five years later.
Since then Yameen has stifled dissent and imprisoned members of the opposition. Rights groups have accused Yameen of using new laws and criminal cases to silence critics and to neutralise his opponents.
On Monday the government made clear that it had no intention of respecting the supreme court’s decision. The legal affairs minister, Azima Shakoor, said the ruling was not enforceable adding that there were numerous challenges to freeing prisoners.
The supreme court, by contrast, said on Sunday there were no obstacles. The international community agreed. The UN and US said the Maldives should implement the order, as the opposition called for human rights to be respected.
Nasheed described the events as “tantamount to a coup.” He tweeted that Yameen should resign and said the security services “must uphold the constitution and serve the Maldivian people”.
Nasheed is in Sri Lanka. He has been living in the UK since 2016 after being granted asylum when he travelled there on medical leave from prison.
In addition to ordering the release of the political prisoners, the supreme court also reinstated 12 MPs who had switched allegiance to the opposition. When they return, Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives will lose its majority in the 85-member parliament, which could result in the legislative body functioning as a rival power to the president.
Known for its luxury tourist resorts, Maldives has suffered from weak government institutions and a divided political system.
Over the weekend, Gayoom tweeted: “A band of thugs armed with knives drove by my residence several times after midnight last night shouting abuse at the top of their voice.” He added: “I wonder who would have sent these unruly thugs?”
On Monday, the health minister, Hussain Rasheed Ahmed, quit in protest over the government’s attitude towards its highest court.
Yameen has been in office since 2013. He had been set to run for re-election this year almost unopposed, with all his opponents either jailed or exiled.
On Friday Nasheed said he would mount a fresh challenge for the presidency this year. Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison after he was convicted under Maldives’ anti-terror laws. The trial was widely condemned by international rights groups.