In an unexpected move last week, the Maldives Supreme Court ordered the release of several imprisoned opposition lawmakers, ruling that their trials were politically motivated.
President Abdulla Yameen refused to comply with the decision and instead imposed a state of emergency for a period of 15 days. This afforded him sweeping powers to send security forces into the Supreme Court building in the capital city of Male on Monday.
Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Judge Ali Hameed were both arrested in the early hours of Tuesday, local police said via Twitter, although charges were not specified. Their detention was soon followed by the arrest of Yameen’s estranged half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — who had ruled the country for more than 30 years until a transition to democracy in 2008.
Gayoom, who has sided with the opposition party since leaving office a decade ago, has been a vocal critic of the current president. He was succeeded by Mohamed Nasheed in 2009, who served during a brief period of multiparty democracy before being controversially ousted five years after taking office.
Nasheed was internationally recognized for his efforts in addressing the impact of climate change on the Maldives. However, he was imprisoned in 2015 on terrorism charges — which his supporters say were contrived.
After being allowed to leave prison a year later on medical grounds, Nasheed was granted asylum in Britain. He was reportedly expected to challenge Yameen in presidential elections later this year, before the current political dispute triggered the ensuing crisis.
Yameen has been in power since 2013, following a disputed election that his opponents claim was rigged. Since then, he has been accused of jailing critics, cracking down on dissent and ultimately eroding the country’s democratic process.
Both former leaders of the Maldives, Nasheed and Gayoom, have called on India to force Yameen to release the recently jailed high court judges and political prisoners. While intervention from New Delhi would certainly be unusual, it is not unprecedented. India sent troops to the Maldives in 1988 to foil a coup.
Alongside India, the U.S. and the U.K. have both urged Yameen to honor the rule of law and free the detainees.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement: “President Yameen has systematically alienated his coalition, jailed or exiled every major opposition political figure, deprived elected members of parliament of their right to represent their voters in the legislature, revised laws to erode human rights… and weakened the institutions of government.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) human rights chief warned Wednesday that Yameen’s state of emergency decree, which had been used to imprison perceived political opponents, was undermining the checks and balances necessary in any functioning democracy.
“The suspension of several functions of the judiciary and parliament, and the restrictions on a series of constitutional rights, create a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of the president,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement.
The Maldives is a hugely popular tourist destination, especially among Chinese and British visitors, and the latest turmoil comes amid peak tourism season for the tropical islands.
Nearly 1.4 million tourists worldwide traveled to the Indian Ocean islands in 2017, according to government statistics. In 2016, Reuters reported that the Maldives earned $2.7 billion from holidaymakers visiting luxury hotels and scuba-diving resorts.
On Tuesday, the Maldives Ministry of Foreign Affairs attempted to reassure vacationers that the situation remained calm and would not affect tourism.
However, in the wake of the latest political crisis, the U.S., China, India and the U.K. have all issued advisories against traveling to the Maldives.