Maldives delay in freeing opposition leaders fuels domestic, international concern

Maldives' former president Mohamed Nasheed leaves after a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Jan 22, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

MALE (REUTERS) - As domestic and international pressure mounts, the Maldives has delayed complying with a Supreme Court order for the immediate release and new trials of nine opposition leaders, freeing them to contest presidential elections this year.

The Indian Ocean nation has been mired in political unrest since Mohamed Nasheed, its first democratically elected leader, was ousted in 2012. He has been in exile on medical grounds from a 13-year jail sentence on terrorism charges.

The Supreme Court on Thursday (Feb 1) said the trials of Nasheed and eight others, many of whom had challenged President Abdulla Yameen, had violated the constitution and international law. It found that prosecutors and judges were unduly influenced "to conduct politically motivated investigations" against them.

On Friday, Attorney General Mohamed Anil said he had held discussions with Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed over the administration's concerns about releasing individuals whose offences ranged from terrorism to corruption and treason.

"The prosecutor general is currently in the process of examining the cases to determine the best way to proceed with the implementation of the Supreme Court's ruling, and the prosecutor general will present recommendations at the earliest," the government said in a statement.

The unexpected ruling frees opposition leaders to run against Yameen in the presidential poll expected to be completed by October. The terrorism convictions would normally bar them from competing unless they received presidential pardons after completing a third of their jail terms.

The joint opposition of the Maldives expressed concern over Yameen's refusal to abide by the order.

"We are deeply fearful that the government's refusal to implement the Supreme Court order could escalate to unrest and incite violence across the country," it said in a statement.

Hundreds of opposition supporters chanted slogans such as "Enforce the Supreme Court ruling," and "Defend the constitution," in a Friday night rally outside the opposition MDP campaign center in Male, the capital.

The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and India also urged Yameen's government to follow the ruling.

In a statement, the office of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: "The Secretary-General reiterates his belief in finding a solution to the political stalemate in the Maldives through all-party talks, which the United Nations continues to stand ready to facilitate."

"We understand the situation is extremely tense," Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights told reporters on Friday.

The agency was "closely watching how the situation develops in the aftermath of Thursday's decisions by the Supreme Court, and in particular, the reactions of the government, military and police," he added.

The European Union urged the government to hold "inclusive dialogue with the leaders of all political parties that should pave the way for credible, transparent and inclusive elections".

Nasheed, who has been in exile in Britain, had sought UN help to restore the political rights of which he was stripped after a trial denounced as hasty and unfair by the United Nations human rights chief.

Thursday's decision also nullified a ruling in which 12 lawmakers lost their parliamentary seats for defecting last July from Yameen's ruling party, costing him his majority in the 85-member legislature.

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