Security forces in the Maldives have arrested two Supreme Court judges and an opposition leader hours after President Abdulla Yameen declared a 15-day state of emergency in the island nation.
Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Judge Ali Hameed were arrested in the early hours of Tuesday, police said on Twitter, without specifying the charges against the pair.
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Their detention comes amid a bitter row between the top court and the president over the release of several imprisoned opposition politicians.
On Monday, Yameen declared a state of emergency in the Indian Ocean archipelago, saying a Supreme Court ruling that overturned “terrorism” convictions against nine of his opponents was illegal.
He sent in security forces to storm the Supreme Court building and ordered the arrest of his estranged half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has sided with the opposition.
Reading out the emergency decree on state television, Legal Affairs Minister Azima Shakoor said the top court’s verdict on February 1 has “resulted in the disruption of the functions of the executive power, and the infringement of national security and public interest”.
“The government does not believe that the Supreme Court ruling to release the political prisoners can be enforced,” she added.
The emergency decree gave security forces sweeping powers to make arrests, curtailed the authority of the judiciary and scrapped immunity granted to Supreme Court judges.
Yameen, who critics accuse of corruption, misrule and rights abuses, has also suspended the country’s parliament, where the opposition have a majority.
Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s exiled former president whose 13-year jail sentence the Supreme Court annulled last week, called the state of emergency “tantamount to a declaration of martial law in the Maldives”.
The decree is “unconstitutional and illegal,” he said in a statement. “Nobody in the Maldives is required to, nor should, follow this unlawful order”.
Eva Abdulla, an opposition member of parliament, called the emergency “nothing but a purge of the political opposition, the judiciary and the parliament”.
Supreme Court stormed
Soon after the emergency declaration on Monday, soldiers forced their way into the Supreme Court building.
Husnu Al Suood, president of the Maldives Bar Association and a former attorney general of the Maldives, said security forces locked up the Supreme Court with the judges inside.
Judges are “without any food now,” Suood said, adding that the chief justice asked the public “to protect him and the institution”.
Soldiers and police in riot gear set up barricades and cordoned off the streets leading to the court building, according to witnesses, and police used pepper spray to disperse protesters outside the court.
In addition to the two judges, police arrested Hassan Saeed Hussain, the chief judicial administrator.
Earlier in the night, police broke down the door to Gayoom’s residence, before detaining him on charges of bribery and trying to overthrow the government, according to a family member and a lawyer. Gayoom’s son-in-law was also seized.
In a video message posted on Twitter before his arrest, Gayoom told supporters he will not “give up on working for reform”.
“I have not done anything to warrant my arrest. I urge you to remain steadfast in your resolve, too,” he said.
The 80-year-old, who ruled Maldives for 30 years, joined forces with his former rival, Nasheed, last year in the wake of an acrimonious power struggle within the ruling party.
His son, Faris, a member of parliament who was detained last July, is among the politicians whose release the Supreme Court ordered last week.
Opposition members of parliament meanwhile urged foreign intervention, calling “all necessary measures … to hold government officials accountable for violations of national and international law”.
Tensions “could escalate to civil unrest and incite violence across the country”, they warned in a statement on Monday.
The United Nations, European Union, and several foreign governments – including India, the US and UK – have urged Yameen to comply with the Supreme Court’s order.
Reacting to the state of emergency, the United States urged government restraint on Monday.
“The Maldivian government and military must respect the rule of law, freedom of expression, and democratic institutions. The world is watching,” the White House National Security Council said in a Twitter post.
Rights group Amnesty International denounced the government’s “appalling track-record of suppressing freedom of expression and any form of opposition”.
“This [emergency] cannot become a licence for further repression,” Omar Waraich, the group’s deputy South Asia director, said on Twitter.
— Omar Waraich (@OmarWaraich) February 5, 2018
The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern over harassment of the press after an opposition-aligned television station and an independent news website said they were under threat of closure and cyberattack, respectively.
China, Australia and the US have issued travel advisories for the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago better known for its upmarket tourism.