|Mohamed Waheed, the new president, denies that a 'coup' took place and blames unrest on his predecessor [Reuters]
Violence has erupted across the Maldives following the resignation of the country's president, who says he was battling a dysfunctional judiciary and was removed "at gunpoint" for taking on vestiges of the 30-year dictatorship that preceded his government.
Mohammad Nasheed, elected in 2008 in the country's first democratic presidential elections, faced a hostile opposition in parliament, an unco-operative judiciary, and growing discontent regarding the role of Islamic values in the Muslim majority country.
He finally resigned after mass protests organised by the opposition against his decision to sack Justice Abdulla Mohamad, the head of the criminal court, on January 16. He had ordered Mohamad to be arrested by the military for not investigating past corruption and human rights cases against members of the former government, headed by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
At the time, the United Nations said Judge Mohamad should either be charged with a crime, or released.
Gayoom, Nasheed’s predecessor, had been president of the Maldives for three decades (1978-2008), winning six successive five-year terms in elections where he was the only name on the ballot. A referendum in 2007 paved the way for direct presidential elections.
In the first free and democratic presidential election, held in 2008, Nasheed, who spent several spells in jail for his role in the opposition, defeated Gayoom in the second round of voting, securing about 54 per cent of the vote.
Gayoom remains the honourary leader of his party, the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM).
Taking on the judiciary
This is not the first time that Nasheed has clashed with the judiciary. In 2010, the country's supreme court blocked the reappointment of Nasheed's cabinet following a mass resignation, sparking a row.
Nasheed says that his resignation marks nothing short of a "coup", carried out by a political establishment linked to the old dictatorship.
He has vowed to get his job back, and accused Mohamed Waheed, his former deputy who is now the president, of being a part of the conspiracy to oust him. It is a charge that Waheed has dismissed, and one that Gayoom's PPM calls a "desperate attempt at insurgency".
Nasheed said he moved against Justice Mohamad because the judiciary remained under the influence of the undemocratic former regime.
The country has "a judiciary handpicked by former president [Gayoom], which was now hiding behind a democratic constitution", he wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times on February 8.
"These powerful judges provided protection for the former president, his family members and political allies, many of whom are accused of corruption, embezzlement and human rights crimes."
Observers of Maldivian politics say that Nasheed may be correct in his critiques of the judiciary.
"This is a judicial crisis that has led to this point. [With the 2008 elections there was] a new executive, a new parliament, but you did not have a new judiciary," John-James Robinson, the editor of Minivan News, a Maldivian English-language news website, told Al Jazeera.
"Of two hundred judges and magistrates in the country, ... 50 per cent of them have less than a Grade 7 education, and 30 per cent have actual criminal records: everything from child abuse to terrorism"
- J.J. Robinson, Editor, Minivan News
"The former justice ministry basically gave all the orders to the judges, and Gayoom [during his rule] made sure these orders were carried out by the judges.
"But of 200 judges and magistrates in the country ... 50 per cent of them have less than a Grade 7 education, and 30 per cent have actual criminal records: everything from child abuse to terrorism," the editor said.
"These are not independent, impartial, moral free thinkers," he said.
Justice Mohamad himself has faced numerous complaints at the Judicial Services Commission (the Malidivian judicial watchdog), including one where he was accused of having two children who were alleged victims of sexual assault re-enact their assault in court, in front of the alleged perpetrator. Last September, Mohamad used court injunctions to protect himself from investigative proceedings.
Justice Mohamad, who is said to have a portrait of Gayoom in his office and has been shown on television swearing loyalty to the former authoritarian president, is also accused of not pursuing cases against the opposition.
"If any opposition guy came in, he was immediately bounced out of court. The police almost never got an extension for detention," said Robinson.
There has also been controversy over the reappointment of judges by the judiciary. Article 285 of the Malidivian constitution states that parliament must set-out certain educational, ethical and other requirements for judges. Rather waiting for those requirements to be set by parliament, the old judges were simply reappointed.
Sacking prompts protests
Nasheed also alleged that "Islamic extremists" were exploiting the crisis to oust him from power.
He wrote that supporters of former strongman Gayoom "threw anti-Semitic and anti-Christian slurs at my government, branding as apostates anyone who tried to defend the country’s liberal Islamic traditions and claiming that democracy granted them and their allies license to call for violent jihad and indulge in hate speech".
On February 7, anti-Nasheed protests sparked a mutiny in police ranks, with several officers siding with protesters in clashes with the military. They also took over the state broadcaster, using it to spread the opposition’s call for further anti-Nasheed protests.
Hours later, Nasheed resigned, saying in his resignation letter: "If I continue as the President of the Maldives, the people of the country would suffer more."
Nasheed's resignation caused his supporters to take to the streets, resulting in a police crackdown involving tear gas and the alleged beating of members of Nasheed’s party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
Rule of law 'at any cost'
Shortly after taking office following Nasheed's exit, the new president issued a statement saying that the rule of law must be upheld "at any cost".
Waheed has denied that a coup took place or that he was part of any conspiracy to unseat Nasheed, saying instead that it was Nasheed’s decision to sack Justice Mohamad that caused the current crisis. Mohamad was ordered to be released shortly after Waheed took power, and, soon after, his court issued arrest warrants for Nasheed.
"We will respect the rule of law, we will uphold the constitution, the executive will not interfere in legislation and we will make sure that democracy is consolidated," Waheed told a news conference on Wednesday. He has dismissed talk that Nasheed's exit was pre-planned, though local media widely reported on a January 31 meeting between him and opposition leaders, where they reportedly pledged their allegiance to him and called for Nasheed to step down.
Waheed says that he will work to appoint a national unity government in the coming days, and that he aims to ensure that presidential elections are held as scheduled in 2013.
So far, his only fresh cabinet appointments have been Mohamed Jameel Ahmed as home minister and Mohamed Nazim, a former military officer, as defence and national security minister. Both are former Gayoom allies.
Nasheed’s party, the MDP, has called Waheed a "puppet leader" of the police, and says it will not take part in the formation of any interim government.
"This is not a legitimate government," said Eva Abdulla, an MDP lawmaker. "We will not negotiate with an unconstitutional government."
The MDP justified Nasheed's decision to sack Justice Mohamed, saying he did so under his responsibility to protect the constitution. Prior to his resignation, Nasheed's government "said that they did not want to detain a judge, and then appealed for international help from the UN and Commonwealth, which was due to arrive on February 9," Robinson said.
Protests by Nasheed's supporters are reportedly spreading, and activists have attacked police stations on several islands, despite the former president calling for demonstrations to remain peaceful.
There appears to be growing discontent, observers say, as Waheed has begun to appoint many members of Gayoom's old regime to key positions, including as police commissioner, the defence and home ministers and his own spokesperson.
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim