Maldives President Abdulla Yameen appeared Wednesday to have gained the upper hand in a bitter power struggle after a diminished Supreme Court reinstated the convictions of high-profile political dissidents including the exiled leader of the opposition.
The tiny island nation, whose palm-fringed sandy beaches are a major tourist draw, was plunged into crisis last week when the top court ordered the release of nine political prisoners, saying their convictions were flawed.
The ruling appeared to pave the way for the return of Mohamed Nasheed, the country\’s first democratically elected president and now leader of the opposition, two years after he left his homeland following a controversial terrorism conviction.
But Yameen refused to comply with the ruling and instead declared a 15-day state of emergency, curtailing the powers of the judiciary and the legislature, before ordering the arrest of the chief justice and another top judge.
On Tuesday the three remaining Supreme Court judges reversed last week\’s ruling, reinstating the convictions against Nasheed and eight others.
That means the leader of the opposition risks re-arrest if he returns as promised to run against Yameen in presidential elections due later this year in the honeymoon islands.
A statement on Yameen’s website on Wednesday said his administration welcomed the court\’s U-turn, which the judges had said was made "in light of the concerns raised by the president".
Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives, has accused the president of acting illegally and urged international intervention in the crisis.
On Tuesday he called on regional superpower India to send in troops to free the judges and the political detainees.
But that is not considered likely in a country where Chinese influence is on the rise.
In a statement, India said it was "disturbed" by the president\’s latest moves and was monitoring the situation closely, but did not directly address Nasheed\’s request.
– Streets calm –
The worsening political turmoil has led several countries to warn against travel to the country, which depends heavily on tourism, at the peak of the holiday season.
On Tuesday UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged the government to lift the state of emergency, saying he was "seriously concerned about the unfolding situation" in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
The streets of the capital Male were calm on Wednesday with only a limited police presence and no sign of any repeat of the opposition protests that broke out last week.
Yameen has had almost all the political opposition jailed since he came to power, in an escalating crackdown on dissent.
This week he ordered the arrest of his estranged half-brother, former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who last year sided with the opposition.
Gayoom — president for 30 years until the country\’s first democratic elections in 2008 — was the only senior opposition figure still at liberty in the Maldives before his arrest on Monday.
Nasheed on Wednesday demanded his release, saying the 80-year-old former leader had not been eating since his arrest.
He also urged the release of Supreme Court judge Ali Hameed, who he said had been ill-treated in detention.
Police have arrested three close relatives of Hameed, who was admitted to hospital early Wednesday.
Judge Hameed and Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed are accused of accepting bribes to impeach the president.
Meanwhile police in the Maldives raided a resort owned by another exiled opposition leader, Qasim Ibrahim, and arrested his son on unspecified charges.
Qasim Ibrahim, who ran for president in 2013 and currently heads the opposition Jumhooree Party, was one of four signatories of an opposition unity deal aimed at toppling President Yameen in April 2017.
Qasim was subsequently jailed for three years on a bribery charge, but was given asylum in Germany after travelling there for medical treatment.
Opposition sources linked the crackdown on Qasim to allegations he was a key figure behind the latest attempt to topple the president.
London-based Amnesty International has called for the immediate release of the judges and political detainees, warning that the "eyes of the world" were on the crisis.