The Maldives’ opposition pleaded with India to send troops to the islands on Tuesday after the president declared a state of emergency and arrested supreme court judges and political opponents.
The island state plunged into political chaos last week when the high court quashed the convictions of nine opposition leaders and ruled that their trials were politically motivated.
President Abdulla Yameen defied the court’s ruling and instead of freeing the jailed politicians he accused the supreme court of planning "a coup" against him.
On Sunday, Mr Yameen declared a state of emergency and government troops stormed the supreme court building. They arrested Abdulla Saeed, the chief justice, and another judge.
"I declared the state of emergency because there was no way to hold these justices accountable. This is a coup. I wanted to know how well planned this coup," Mr Yameen said.
Police also arrested the president’s half brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, an 80-year-old former dictator of the Maldives who has become an unlikely opposition figure.
Mohamed Nasheed, a former president, has been leading the opposition from his exile in Sri Lanka. On Tuesday, he appealed to India to send an envoy supported by troops to force Mr Yameen into releasing prisoners.
"On behalf of Maldivian people we humbly request: 1. India to send envoy, backed by its military, to release judges and political detainees including President Gayoom. We request a physical presence. 2. The US to stop all financial transactions of Maldives regime leaders going through US banks," he tweeted.
On behalf of Maldivian people we humbly request:
1. India to send envoy, backed by its military, to release judges & pol. detainees inc. Prez. Gayoom. We request a physical presence.
2. The US to stop all financial transactions of Maldives regime leaders going through US banks.
— Mohamed Nasheed (@MohamedNasheed) February 6, 2018
The Maldives, a country of 400,000 people, is known to many as a luxury beach tourism destination but the country’s political scene is fraught and chaotic.
Mr Nasheed, a British-educated politician with good relations in the West, was best known for stunts to demonstrate the effects of climate change, like holding a cabinet meeting underwater.
He was elected in 2008 but forced from power in 2012 after the police and much of the military deserted him. He was later convicted of terrorism charges and jailed but was able to leave the country for health reasons and sought asylum in the UK.
The supreme court voided his terrorism conviction last week, calling his trial "politically motivated", and ordered a retrial.
Mr Yameen took power in 2013 and has cracked down on political opponents and independent activists. One third of the country’s lawyers had their licenses suspended after they signed a petition demanding the government respect the independence of the judiciary.
"The rule of law has deteriorated to the point that it really has no meaning in these islands," said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International.
India intervened in the Maldives in 1988 to foil a coup against the government but it is considered unlikely they would heed Mr Nasheed’s call for intervention this time.
The Maldives’ strategic location in the Indian Ocean makes it of interest to China and Mr Yameen has carefully fostered ties with Beijing, meaning that an Indian intervention could risk a broader confrontation with China.
"I don’t think that India will take the chance of having a standoff with China in the Indian Ocean," said Mr Waraich.
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, said he was "gravely concerned about the declaration of a state of emergency in Maldives, and the accompanying suspension of fundamental rights.
"The damage being done to democratic institutions in Maldives and the sustained misuse of process in Parliament is deeply worrying."
The White House also warned the government that it "must respect the rule of law, freedom of expression, and democratic institutions. The world is watching."
China meanwhile said the political situation in the Maldives was an internal matter.
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