Maldives court orders release of political prisoners
AFP – The Maldives’ top court ordered the release of all key political prisoners Thursday, clearing the way for exiled former leader Mohamed Nasheed to run for president.
The atoll nation’s joint opposition welcomed the surprise ruling and demanded that President Abdulla Yameen step down.
"The Supreme Court’s verdict effectively ends President Yameen’s authoritarian rule," the opposition said in a statement.
The Maldives’ popular image as an upmarket holiday paradise had been severely damaged by a major crackdown on dissent under Yameen, who has overseen the jailing of almost all the political opposition.
Nasheed, who is living in self-imposed exile, was sentenced to 13 years in jail on a terrorism charge widely criticised as politically motivated.
In its order, seen by AFP, the Supreme Court said the "questionable and politically motivated nature of the trials of the political leaders warrant a retrial".
The court ordered authorities to "immediately free the jailed leaders until a court of law sentences otherwise".
– Street celebrations –
Hundreds of supporters of Nasheed’s opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) took to the streets on Thursday night to celebrate the court decision.
Several activists gathered outside an MDP office and chanted slogans demanding Yameen’s impeachment.
The Maldives police said in a tweet that it will abide by court orders, but there was no immediate response from the government.
It was not immediately clear when the political prisoners would be freed or what prompted the action by the court.
But earlier this week opposition figures jointly petitioned the court to remove Yameen and order an investigation into corruption allegations against him.
Opposition figures including Nasheed and another five dissidents named in Thursday’s order have united against the president.
They accuse him of "unprecedented corruption, including unjust enrichment from appropriation of state properties and funds for personal benefit, for the benefit of his family and political associates".
Among those who petitioned the top court was Yameen’s half-brother and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose legislator son, Faris Maumoon, had been arrested. He was among those whose release the court ordered.
Also among them is Ahmed Adeeb, Yameen’s erstwhile deputy, who is serving a 15-year jail term after being convicted on a charge of attempted assassination in September 2015.
Another key dissident, Qasim Ibrahim, who helped Yameen in the 2013 run-off election, was also ordered to be released.
He, however, is not in the Maldives. Like Nasheed, he also obtained prison leave for medical treatment and has remained in Europe.
Almost all key opposition leaders and a number of ruling party dissidents have either been jailed or gone into exile in the Maldives in recent years under Yameen.
The president took office in 2013 after winning a controversial run-off vote against Nasheed.
The former president was jailed in 2015, but granted prison leave in 2016 for medical treatment in London, where he secured political asylum.
Last year he announced his intention to return and run for president in elections due later this year, but he was prevented by the criminal conviction against him.
A UN panel has ruled that his imprisonment was illegal and asked the regime to pay him compensation — an order ignored by Yameen’s administration.
The United States has said democracy is under threat in the strategically located archipelago of 340,000 Sunni Muslims, which sits on key international shipping lanes.