Mass protest in Maldives over ex-president Mohamed Nasheed's arrest

MALÉ (AFP) - Thousands of supporters of former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed marched in the honeymoon islands' tiny capital Male Friday to protest his detention on terror charges, which sparked international condemnation.

Although the rally was not scheduled to start until the evening, crowds began streaming onto Male from early Friday, fuelled by news that Nasheed had been given just three days to prepare his defence during his latest court appearance.

His lawyers also said Nasheed had been denied access to his defence team as he was brought before the court Thursday on charges which date back to his sacking of one of the islands' top judges to the time he was president.

"Stop brutality," said a placard carried by a Nasheed supporter wearing yellow, the colour of his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

Others carried red and green Maldivian flags as they marched to a meeting venue while police in full riot gear deployed in the area.

Supporters of the Jumhooree Party, former ally of President Abdulla Yameen, also joined the opposition rally to express solidarity with their one-time rival Nasheed.

"We are with you sir," said a placard which had a photo of the 47-year-old Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected leader.

He was arrested on Sunday and charged with terrorism over the detention of criminal court judge Abdullah Mohamed in 2012, when he was still president.

The United States and regional power India have voiced concern over the charges, which carry a jail sentence of more than 10 years, and the manner in which Nasheed was dragged roughly into court on Monday and denied both legal access and medical treatment.

The dramatic arrest came amid growing opposition to the government of President Yameen, whose spokesman on Tuesday denied that the move to prosecute Nasheed was politically motivated.

'FREE NASHEED'

"The rally is to pressure the government to release president Nasheed," MDP spokeswoman Shauna Aminath told AFP.

"The authorities have tried to scare away people, but they failed." There was no immediate comment from the Maldivian police.

The opposition has held regular night-time rallies for the last year to protest what they call growing authoritarianism, which has damaged the atoll nation's image as a tourist paradise.

Former colonial power Britain Friday said it was closely following the developments after urging its citizens to remain vigilant and avoid large crowds ahead of the rally in the 2 square kilometre Male, where police use pepper spray and batons.

Nasheed resigned as the Maldives' leader in February 2012 after a mutiny by police and troops that followed weeks of protests over the arrest of the criminal court judge Mohamed on corruption allegations.

A former political prisoner, Nasheed denies any wrongdoing in the dramatic events of 2012 which he has characterised as a coup.

Nasheed tried to stage a comeback in the 2013 presidential election, winning the first round before losing in a controversial run-off to Yameen who is the half-brother of former strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

After his toppling, Nasheed was initially prosecuted on charges of abuse of power and arbitrary arrest.

The case against Nasheed had been making little progress and the charges were in fact dropped earlier this month. The decision to up the ante by slapping him with terror charges on Sunday caught observers off guard.

He has been refused bail and ordered to remain in police custody until the conclusion of a trial that his party says will not be fair.

The MDP said independent observers including a Western diplomat had been denied access to Thursday's hearing.

"President Nasheed was effectively prevented from properly consulting with his legal team," the MDP said in a statement shortly after the hearing ended.

"President Nasheed's legal team raised concerns that they had not been given adequate time to prepare a reasonable defence against a charge as serious as terrorism." The party said defendants were normally given 10 days to prepare.

Authorities in the Maldives have also fast-tracked the cases against three other people facing identical charges.

Local media reports said Nasheed had objected to two judges on the three-member bench on the basis that they were already cited as prosecution witnesses in the case against him.