Maldives jail Islamist leader for 12 years on terror charge

MALE, Maldives (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS) - A court in the Maldives on Tuesday (Feb 16) sentenced the leader of the country's main Islamist party to 12 years in jail after convicting him on a terrorism charge.

Sheikh Imran Abdulla of the opposition Adhaalath Party (AP) was charged under a tough 1990 anti-terrorism law for allegedly inciting unrest during an anti-government rally last May in the capital, Male'. Imran's Adhaalath Party joined the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party in May last year in a mass rally to protest the jailing of dissidents, including Maldives' first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed who was sentenced to 13 years in jail after also being convicted on terrorism charges, by the government of President Abdulla Yameen. Following the demonstration, some 175 people, including Sheikh Imran, were arrested by the police.

Imran’s lawyer Husnu Suood said it was the first terrorism conviction based on a speech in the history of the Maldives.

“We believe the judgment is grossly unfair because he has not called for violence in his speech. He clearly asked the participants at the rally to refrain from violence and had taken all steps to prevent violence,” said Suood.

The sentence comes days after Maldives President Abdulla Yameen called on the opposition parties to end a standoff with his own party amid rising international pressure. Adhaalath Party Spokesman Ali Zahir said the sentencing demonstrated the absence of good faith from the government’s side in the inter party talks.

Imran's imprisonment came just 11 months after the highly controversial jailing of the country's main opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed, who last month obtained prison leave to undergo urgent surgery in London. Nasheed  has called for sanctions against Yameen and his allies for detaining political prisoners, mainly opposition leaders. Political unrest in the archipelago has continued since Nasheed was ousted in disputed circumstances in February 2012. Nasheed was then arrested and sentenced in March for ordering the abduction of a judge, following a rapid trial that drew international condemnation. Thousands took to the street for the May Day protest calling for the release of former president, who was sentenced to 13 years in jail after also being convicted on terrorism charges. Hundreds of his supporters were arrested in clashes with police.

The authorities have also arrested Yameen's former deputy Ahmed Adeeb on "treason" charges after he was implicated in a plot to assassinate the president last September by setting off an explosive device aboard his speedboat.  Almost all of the President's key rivals are either in jail or living in exile.

The tiny nation of 340,000 Sunni Muslims has been gripped by political turmoil damaging its reputation as a luxury holiday destination since Nasheed was toppled four years ago in what he claimed was a coup led by mutinous police and troops.

President Yameen, who has refused to accept a UN panel ruling that Nasheed's jailing was illegal, has invited opposition parties for talks to resolve their differences. However, no dates have been set for the talks. Similar negotiations last year ended in failure with the opposition demanding that their leaders should first be released before any discussions commence.