'All-out assault on democracy', UN rights chief says of Maldives

United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein at the UN Offices in Geneva on Aug 30, 2017.
United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein at the UN Offices in Geneva on Aug 30, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (REUTERS, AFP) - The United Nations top human rights official called on the Maldives government on Wednesday (Feb 7) to immediately lift the state of emergency imposed two days ago, calling it to "an all-out assault on democracy".

The Maldives has been in crisis since last week, when the Supreme Court quashed convictions ranging from corruption to terrorism of nine opposition figures, including former president Mohamed Nasheed. Tension came to a head when President Abdulla Yameen's government rejected the ruling, imposing an emergency on Monday and then arrested the chief justice and another judge of the court the next day.

"President Yameen has, to put it bluntly, usurped the authority of the State's rule-of-law institutions and its ability to work independently from the executive," Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement, adding, "what is happening now is tantamount to an all-out assault on democracy".

His comments came after the exiled former president of the Maldives on Wednesday accused the authorities of ill-treatment of a Supreme Court judge thrown into prison following the imposition of emergency in the Indian Ocean island nation.

Judge Ali Hameed was being harshly treated, Nasheed, who was granted asylum by Britain after the Male government allowed him to leave jail for medical treatment abroad in 2016, said in a Twitter post.

Former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 80, who was also arrested in the crackdown and sent to a prison island, had stopped eating, he added.

"I am told President Gayoom is not taking food, while Justice Ali Hameed has been ill treated," Nasheed said on Twitter, but gave no further details.

However, Dunya Maumoon, Gayoom's daughter and a minister of state in Yameen's administration, rejected Nasheed's comment about her father, telling Reuters: "I just visited my father. He is keeping well. Nasheed is just spreading rumours."

Gayoom ruled the Maldives for 30 years until 2008, when Nasheed was elected president, and he now stands with the opposition in the fractious politics of the tropical islands, home to 400,000 people, most of them Muslims.

The Maldives, best known for its luxury beach resorts, has assumed greater importance since China began building political and economic ties in its so-called "String Of Pearls" strategy to create a network of ports in the Indian Ocean.

On Wednesday, China cautioned against any foreign meddling in the islands' internal affairs, after Maldives' opposition leaders called for intervention by its rival, India.

"The international community should play a constructive role from a position of respecting the Maldives' sovereign rights, rather than taking actions that will complicate the situation," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, when asked about the possibility of military intervention.

India, which has historically had greater clout in the islands, located near key shipping lanes, has sought to push back against China's growing influence.

India, which has expressed concern over the situation, has been silent on the calls for intervention.

"We are disturbed by the declaration of a state of emergency in the Maldives, following the refusal of the government to abide by the unanimous ruling of the full bench of the Supreme Court on Feb 1, and also by the suspension of constitutional rights," its foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

Since Yameen took power in 2013, his government has faced heavy criticism over the detention of opponents, political influence over the judiciary and the lack of freedom of speech.

Nasheed, who is in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, urged India to send an envoy backed by its military to the Maldives to free the political detainees and judges.

He also asked the United States to block financial transactions of government leaders.

Yameen, the half-brother of former president Gayoom, said his actions were designed to stop a coup and suggested that two senior judges acted against him because law enforcement officials were investigating them for graft.

On Tuesday, the three judges who are still free reversed the Supreme Court's decision to drop charges against the nine political dissidents, the court said on its website.

Singapore on Tuesday issued an advisory to citizens against non-essential travel to the Maldives, following similar measures by China, India and the United States.