Maldives crisis: Abdulla Yameen ready to hold early polls as protests continues over release of political prisoners

Protesters clashed with the police in Maldives capital Male on Saturday after President  Yameen Abdul Gayoom refused to follow its Supreme Court's order calling for a release of all political prisoners including exiled former president Mohammed Nasheed.

In the latest incident in the aftermath of the verdict, the scuffle between the police and protesters broke out right outside Maldives Chief Justice Abdullah Saeed's residence.

After the Thursday's court's ruling was made public, street celebrations by government opponents had transformed into three hours of clashes with police, who used tear gas and batons to break up the gatherings.

Protesters also converged on a prison in Male, where the politicians are being held, demanding their immediate release, but police forced them to leave. They then moved to another location for a sit-in protest that was also broken up. Journalists were kept away from both events by police.

In the meanwhile, Yameen on Saturday said that he was willing to hold an early presidential election to allow voters to decide who they want to lead the Indian Ocean archipelago.

Speaking publicly for the first time since Thursday's Supreme Court order to release politicians opposed to him, including exiled former president Mohammed Nasheed, Yameen said that he was open to holding an election several months before his term ends next November. In addition to ordering the release of the political prisoners, the court also reinstated 12 lawmakers who had been ousted for switching allegiance to the opposition.

When those lawmakers return, Yameen's Progressive Party of the Maldives will lose its majority in the 85-member parliament, which can result in the legislative body functioning as a rival power to the president. Yameen said that he did not expect the court ruling, but that all relevant authorities of the state need to do "a lot of work to see how to implement it".

 Maldives crisis: Abdulla Yameen ready to hold early polls as protests continues over release of political prisoners

File image of Maldives president Yameen Abdulla Gayoom. Reuters

"We are working on making sure we can respect the Supreme Court order in a way that doesn't cause any difficulties to the people," he said at a rally in his support organised by his Progressive Party of the Maldives.

Yameen dismisses police chief

Earlier in the day, Yameen fired a national police chief for the second time since the court order. Yameen's office said he dismissed Ahmed Saudhee and appointed Deputy Police Commissioner Abdulla Nawaz to act as interim police chief. No reason was given for the dismissal.

Saudhee was appointed interim police chief on Friday, one day after Yameen fired Ahamed Areef, whose dismissal came after the police department announced that it would uphold the Supreme Court's order. Attorney-General Mohamed Anil said Areef was fired because Yameen was repeatedly unable to reach him on the phone.

International reactions

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked the Maldivian government to respect the Supreme Court's order, his spokesman's office 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," the office said in a statement. "The UN chief also calls on all to exercise restraint," the statement read.

India, a major player in Maldives, urged Yameen to abide by the court's orders and release political prisoners. India on Friday said it was imperative for "all organs" of the Maldivian government to abide by the order "in the spirit of democracy".

In a statement, the Ministry of External Affairs said it was "closely monitoring" the evolving situation in the Maldives and also hoped that the safety and security of Indian expatriates in the island nation would be ensured by the Maldivian authorities under "all circumstances".

The US welcomed the decision by the Maldives' Supreme Court to order the release of political prisoners and to reinstate elected members of parliament on Saturday.

"The United States urges the Maldivian government to respect and abide by the Supreme Court ruling," state department spokesperson Heather Nauert said. "It is imperative that the Maldivian president, government, and security services uphold the Constitution and rule of law and implement the court's ruling in full," she said.

Troubled history

Known for its luxury tourist resorts, the Maldives became a multiparty democracy 10 years ago after decades of autocratic rule by the current president's half-brother, strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

But the nation lost much of its democratic gains after Yameen was elected in 2013. He has maintained a tight grip on power, controlling institutions such as the judiciary and the police. Yameen had been set to run for re-election this year virtually unopposed, with all of his opponents either jailed or exiled.

On Friday, Nasheed, whose conviction for abducting a judge was overturned by the court order, said he would mount a fresh challenge for the presidency this year.

Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison after he was convicted of the abduction charge under the Maldives' anti-terror laws in a trial that was widely condemned by international rights groups.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Feb 04, 2018 12:59:34 IST