The President of the Maldives said Tuesday he ordered a state of emergency to investigate “this plot, this coup” involving a Supreme Court ruling last week that ordered the release of imprisoned opposition leaders, including many of his political rivals.
The island country lies south-west of India and Sri Lanka.
“This is not a state of war, epidemic or natural disaster, this is something more dangerous,” said President Abdulla Yameen in a televised address. “This is an obstruction of the very ability of the state to function.”
Yameen, who has rolled back a series of democratic reforms during his five years in office, has said that the court overstepped its authority in ordering the politicians released, saying the order “blatantly disrupts the systems of checks and balances.”
Yameen’s government has moved to assert its power since the Supreme Court ruling, announcing a 15-day state of emergency Monday night that gives officials sweeping powers, including to make arrests, search and seize property and restrict freedom of assembly. Hours after the emergency was declared, security forces arrested two Supreme Court justices and a former ruler who is now an opposition leader.
“This state of emergency is the only way I can determine how deep this plot, this coup, goes,” Yameen said.
Yameen’s main political rival called on India to send an envoy – backed by its military – to free the imprisoned justices and opposition leaders.
Exiled former president Mohammed Nasheed, who was among the opposition politicians ordered freed by the Supreme Court and is now in neighbouring Sri Lanka, said in a statement that Yameen “has illegally declared martial law and overrun the state. We must remove him from power,” calling for the Indian envoy and military to be sent. “We are asking for a physical presence.”
He also called on the US to stop Maldives government officials from making transactions through US banks.
There was no immediate response from India or the US, though both have called on Yameen to obey the Supreme Court order.
The spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was seriously concerned about the declaration of a state of emergency and the entry of security forces into the Supreme Court premises.
“The secretary-general urges the government of the Maldives to uphold the constitution and rule of law, lift the state of emergency as soon as possible, and take all measures to ensure the safety and security of the people in the country, including members of the judiciary,” he said.
Yameen has cracked down on civil liberties since coming to power in 2013, imprisoning or forcing into exile nearly every politician who opposes him.
Hours after the emergency was declared, security forces in riot gear and blue camouflage stormed the Supreme Court building, arresting two of its judges, including chief Justice Abdulla Saeed. It was not immediately clear what charges they faced, if any. The whereabouts of the court’s other two judges were not clear Tuesday.
Later, former dictator and opposition politician Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – President Yameen’s half-brother – was seen on smartphone video taken by his daughter being quietly escorted from his home by security forces, hugging friends and family and waving to supporters before being driven away.
Shortly before his arrest he sent a message on Twitter saying a large deployment of police had surrounded his house: “To protect me or to arrest me? No idea.”
His lawyer, Maumoon Hameed, said Gayoom faced charges including bribery and attempting to overthrow the government.
Gayoom was President from 1978 to 2008, when the Maldives became a multiparty democracy.
The Maldives is an archipelago of more than 1,000 islands with fewer than 400,000 citizens, more than one-third of them living in the crowded capital city, Male. Tourism now dominates the economy, with wealthy foreigners flown to hyper-expensive resort islands.
But it remains, in many ways, a small community. Gayoom, the former dictator, is the half-brother of President Yameen. The two men are now political enemies. Nasheed, the opposition leader, unseated Gayoom in the country’s first democratic elections in 2008. He and Gayoom are now political allies in an opposition alliance.
Nasheed resigned during his presidential term following protests over the arrest of a judge. He lost the 2013 election to Yameen and then was convicted under Maldives’ anti-terrorism laws in a trial widely criticised by international rights groups.
He was granted medical leave in 2016 and travelled to Britain where he was granted asylum.
Nasheed said last week after the court ruling that he would mount a fresh challenge for the presidency this year.
While there was no immediate sign of India preparing to send troops to the Maldives, New Delhi does have a history of military involvement there.
In 1988, Sri Lankan militants working for a Maldivian businessman tried to take control of the country and seized many government buildings.
Then President Gayoom asked for Indian military help to drive back the militants. India dispatched 1,600 paratroopers, who quickly restored Gayoom’s control.
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