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Dramatic changes in the Maldives: Has President Yameen ordered a coup d’ etat?

Ravi Joshi | Updated on: 5 February 2018, 13:34 IST

The Maldives has been on the boil since 1 February. Besieged by hundreds of seething protestors, the government of President Abdulla Yameen is fighting a losing battle. It stands challenged by the island country's Supreme Court that has ordered the release of all his opponents. A restless Parliament is set to impeach the President.

President Yameen struck back on Sunday (4 Feb). Attorney-General Mohamed Anil effectively declared himself the chief judicial authority in the Maldives and ordered the police and the military not to follow the rulings of the Supreme Court. He was flanked by the chief of Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) General Shiya, and the newly appointed Commissioner of Police Abdulla Nawaz.

What the Supreme Court ordered on 1 February was the immediate release from detention of former President Mohamed Nasheed, Jumhooree Party Leader Qasim Ibrahim, Adhaalath Party Leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla, former defence minister Mohamed Nazim, parliamentarian Faris Maumoon and four other political prisoners.

The ruling said all political prisoners must be released as trials against them violated the Maldives’ Constitution and international law. The ruling also stated that political pressure was applied on the prosecutors and the courts during these trials. 

It further ordered that all such cases should be judicially re-evaluated in accordance with law and until a fair trial all those persons should be released with immediate effect.

The Court further annulled the previous controversial ‘anti-defection’ ruling of July 2017, thus immediately reinstating 12 Opposition members of Parliament. These members belonging to the ruling party defected to the Opposition and the Speaker had debarred them from holding their parliamentary seats. 

This was held unconstitutional as there existed no law on ‘floor-crossing and changing of party membership by parliamentarians’. The government had failed to come up with such a law even after six months and 20 days past the event. 

The restoration of the 12 MPs gives the Opposition alliance a clear majority in Parliament.

Following this order, the police commissioner Areef declared he would abide by the orders of the Court and implement it. Within hours he was dismissed by President Yameen. He was replaced by Acting Commissioner Saudhee who said he too would abide by the Court orders. Soon he was replaced by Nawaz.

Meanwhile, the youth led by united opposition party leaders have gathered from the night of 1 February to celebrate the Court verdict and force the President’s office to issue orders implenting decision.

After two days of dithering, the President ordered his Attorney-General to issue a direct challenge to the Supreme Court, refusing to implement its orders. The AG further speculated that he had reports that the Court would rule on Sunday, 4 February that President Yameen could no longer hold office, following his refusal to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling of 1 February.

The AG said the Supreme Court is about to rule on Yameen and that such a ruling would be a national security threat, and hence he would not allow for its implementation. The defence chief and the police commissioner too said they would follow his instructions.

The Police then attempted to arrest the Chief Justice and the Judicial Administrator, equivalent to the Registrar of the Supreme Court. Protesters and Police clashed outside the home of the Chief Justice late last night, amid reports that the Police were about to arrest the Chief Justice.

Former President Nasheed on Twitter labeled this unconstitutional and highly illegal move as tantamount to a coup d’etat.

Sunday saw scenes of chaos at Parliament, as both riot police and the military in riot gear, sealed off the legislature in an apparent – and illegal – attempt to stop parliamentarians from entering the building. That was supposed to be the first parliamentary session of 2018.

Military personnel in full riot gear are currently in the chamber, as Opposition MPs try to force a vote of no-confidence against President Yameen.

The Secretary-General of Parliament, who had announced he would abide by the SC order to reinstate the 12 MPs, resigned on Sunday. This follows the resignation of a host of officials, including the head of Maafushi prison, where political prisoners are currently detained. 

Following the SC's descision reinstating the MPs, the Speaker called off the opening of Parliament, scheduled for 5 February. Now the Opposition parties claim they have the support of at least 50 MPs to vote for impeachment of the President. A mere 43 votes are sufficient to bring down the President.

In a last ditch attempt to save himself from an united Opposition supported by the Judiciary and a Parliament set to impeach him, President Yameen is likely to declare a national Emergency and assume dictatorial powers. 

There are reports that defence personnel from islands outside Male’ are being rushed in hundreds of boats as the Opposition too is mobilisng supporters from other islands. The island nation is all set for a show down.

India is closely monitoring the sitaution, having already urged all parties to abide by the “spirit of democracy and rule of law and implement the verdict of the Supreme Court.”

The author served as a diplomat in the Maldives.

Edited by Joyjeet Das

First published: 5 February 2018, 13:34 IST
Ravi Joshi

Retired diplomat, presently a Visiting Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.