Maldives

Protests in Maldives amid pressure to release prisoners

Hundreds rally for second day urging action on court ruling ordering release of President Abdulla Yameen's opponents.

Protesters gathered in Male for a second day after the Supreme Court ordered the release of political prisoners [Ashwa Faheem/Al Jazeera]

Hundreds of people have rallied in the Maldives' capital, Male, urging President Abdulla Yameen to comply with a court ruling ordering the release of several jailed opposition leaders.

Protesters sang and danced outside an opposition campaign hall on Friday, chanting slogans such as "respect the constitution" and "enforce the Supreme Court ruling now".

The landmark verdict - which drew praise from the United Nations human rights office, the EU and several foreign governments, including India, the UK, and the US - overturned what judges called unfair convictions against nine high-profile political prisoners, including the island nation's exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed.

It also reinstates 12 members of parliament, who were stripped of their seats when they defected to the opposition last year, giving Yameen's opponents a majority in the 85-member parliament. 

The sudden about-face by the Supreme Court, which has sided with Yameen in the past, and the international support for its ruling puts unprecedented pressure on the embattled president ahead of a presidential election later this year. 

Neighbouring India, in a rare statement on Friday, urged Yameen's government to comply with the ruling. 

"In the spirit of democracy and the rule of law, it is imperative for all organs of the Government of the Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the apex court," the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said.  

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN human rights office, also called on the Maldivian government to "fully respect" the court verdict.

Expressing concern over a police crackdown on opposition supporters celebrating the ruling on Thursday, Colville said his office was "closely watching how the situation develops ... in particular the reactions of the government, military and police".

In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, Yameen fired his police chief. 

The dismissal came minutes after the police force said it would obey the Supreme Court. 

The opposition, in a statement on Friday, said it was fearful the government's failure to implement the court order "could escalate to unrest and incite violence across the country". 

The government, however, reiterated a promise to comply with the court order on Friday, with Attorney General Mohamed Anil telling reporters the prosecutor's office and the police were "working at top speed" to review the cases of the nine people whose convictions were overturned by the court.

But the government has several "legal concerns," he said, adding: "The offences in some of these cases are very serious, and include terrorism, bomb attacks, corruption, embezzlement and fraud."

The Maldives has been mired in political unrest since Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected president, was arrested and jailed on "terrorism" charges in 2015. He later sought asylum in the UK after travelling there on medical leave from prison. 

Since then, almost all key opposition leaders have either been jailed or gone into exile. 

The opposition accuses Yameen, who assumed office in 2013, of "unprecedented corruption", misrule and rights abuses, and is seeking to undermine him ahead of this year's presidential election.

Yameen denies the allegations.  

On the streets of Male, after police pushed celebrating opposition supporters out of the streets and on to the pavements, 24-year-old Mickail Naseem said he has never "been more hopeful for change in this country".

"Although the ruling was limited to prominent political prisoners, it is a win for the common man. It means there is a good chance of justice in more cases."

Source: Al Jazeera News