Security forces in the Maldives stormed the Supreme Court overnight, arresting two judges and later a top opposition politician, after the government declared a state of emergency in the Indian Ocean nation famous its luxurious resorts.
The government of President Yameen Abdul Gayoom has moved to assert its power since the Supreme Court ordered several imprisoned opposition politicians to be freed late last week. The government announced a 15-day state of emergency Monday night, giving it sweeping powers, including to make arrests, search and seize property and restrict freedom of assembly.
Yameen has cracked down on civil liberties since coming to power in 2013 , imprisoning or forcing into exile nearly every politician who opposes him.
Hours after the state of emergency was declared, security forces in riot gear and blue camouflage stormed the Supreme Court building, arresting two of its judges, including Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed. It was not immediately clear what charges they faced, if any. The whereabouts of the court’s other two judges were not clear Tuesday morning.
Later, former dictator and opposition politician Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was seen on cellphone video shot by his daughter being quietly escorted from his home by security forces, hugging friends and family and waving to supporters before being driven away.
Shortly before his arrest he sent a message on Twitter saying a large deployment of police had surrounded his house: “To protect me or to arrest me? No idea.”
His lawyer, Maumoon Hameed, said Gayoom faced charges including bribery and attempting to overthrow the government.
Gayoom was president from 1978 to 2008, when the Maldives became a multiparty democracy.
The president’s main rival, exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed, denounced the emergency decree and urged people not to obey what he called an “unlawful order.”
“This declaration is unconstitutional and illegal,” Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected leader, said in a statement.
Nasheed, who lives in exile, was among the opposition politicians ordered freed by the Supreme Court.
The Maldives is an archipelago of more than 1,000 islands with fewer than 400,000 citizens, more than one-third of them living in the crowded capital city, Male. Tourism now dominates the country’s economy, with wealthy foreigners flown to hyper-expensive resort islands.
But it remains, in many ways, a small community. Gayoom, the former dictator, is the half brother of President Yameen. The two men are now political enemies. Nasheed, the opposition leader, unseated Gayoom in the country’s first democratic elections in 2008. But he and Gayoom are now political allies in an opposition alliance.
The surprise, unanimous Supreme Court ruling last week ordering the release of the imprisoned opposition leaders has led to increasing turmoil, with Yameen lashing out at the court, opposition protests spilling into the streets of Male, and soldiers in riot gear stopping lawmakers from meeting in the parliament building.
Yameen, in a statement issued after the state of emergency was announced on state television, said that while “certain rights will be restricted, general movements, services and businesses will not be affected.”
The emergency decree followed a series of letters exchanged by the government and the Supreme Court, arguing whether last week’s order was legal and whether the prisoners could be freed.
Nasheed was one of the opposition leaders the Supreme Court had ordered freed, ruling that the guilty verdicts had been politically influenced.
The United Nations, United States and other foreign governments have urged the Maldives to respect the court order.
The U.S. also strongly criticized the emergency decree, with State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert saying Yameen has “systematically alienated his coalition, jailed or exiled every major opposition political figure” since his election.
She called on Yameen, the army, and police to comply with the rule of law, and for the constitutional rights of Maldivians to be restored.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he was “gravely concerned” about the Maldives situation and asked Yameen and the Maldives government to “peacefully end the state of emergency, restore all articles of the constitution, take immediate steps to implement in full the order of the Supreme Court, and to permit and support the full, free and proper functioning of Parliament.”
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 could result in the legislative body functioning as a rival power to the president.
The Maldives became a multiparty democracy 10 years ago after Gayoom’s rule, during which he was repeatedly the only candidate for the presidency.
Nasheed won the nation’s first democratic election in 2008 but resigned during his term following protests over the arrest of a judge. He lost the 2013 presidential election to Yameen, then was convicted under Maldives’ anti-terrorism laws in a trial widely criticized by international rights groups.
He was granted medical leave in 2016 and traveled to Britain where he was granted asylum. He is currently in nearby Sri Lanka, watching as the political turmoil unfolds.
Nasheed said last week after the court ruling that he would mount a fresh challenge for the presidency this year.
China, Australia and the United States updated their travel advice during the latest unrest. China urged people to avoid travel there and Australia and the U.S. told citizens to be cautious.