Troops in riot gear surrounded the Supreme Court in the Maldives’ capital Malé late Monday as security forces arrested an ex-president and two justices amid a deepening political crisis on the Indian Ocean island chain.
The soldiers were dispatched at the behest of President Abdulla Yameen, who had just declared a 15-day nationwide State of Emergency granting law enforcement sweeping powers and suspending parts of the constitution. The move came a week after the Maldivian Supreme Court overturned criminal convictions against nine of the President’s opponents and ordered him to free those in jail.
Soon after the soldiers arrived, local news sites reported, they entered the halls of justice. Maldivians circulated messages Tuesday morning urging each other to “be safe” according to the BBC, and a message on local news site the Maldives Independent said the outlet was “under attack.”
“We believe the attack was designed to coincide with the state of emergency being declared. We will try to update the live blog but it may not be possible as the attacks are ongoing,” the banner read.
Here’s what you should know.
More than meets the eye
The Maldives is a chain of atolls southwest of Sri Lanka that for centuries served as a stopping point for Arab seafarers and today is considered a tourist’s paradise. But there’s much more brewing on this far-flung archipelago than most visitors are ever exposed to. The siloed nature of tourism — which contributes more than a quarter of the Maldives’ GDP — means that few foreign visitors cross paths with the islands’ history of dictatorship and political oppression; even a wave of Islamic radicalism had little impact on visitor numbers, with 1.2 million foreign arrivals in 2017.
Many, however, are aware of the existential threat climate change poses to the Maldives. That’s in part thanks to the country’s first democratically elected leader President Mohamad Nasheed, who in 2009 staged an underwater cabinet meeting to bring global attention to the fact that Malé, just 2.4 meters above sea level, risks drowning. Around a third of the Maldives’ 400,000 residents live on the small island capital, one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
The Maldives’ latest political crisis is the culmination of a standoff between President Abdulla Yameen and the Maldives Supreme Court, which last week ruled that nine opponents of the president had been unfairly convicted. Those opponents include exiled former president Nasheed — who in 2015 was sentenced to 13 years in prison after a trial broadly viewed as politically motivated — and Mohamed Nazim, a former defense minister who many Maldivians believe was framed, according to the New York Times. Opposition protests have gathered pace as the President continues to refuse the court’s order to free the jailed dissidents.
Along with the chief justice and another high court judge, Monday night also saw authorities detain Nasheed’s political predecessor Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Times reports. Gayoom — an autocrat who ruled the Maldives for 30 years and under whom former president Nasheed was arrested multiple times — is Yameen’s half brother but is now allied with the opposition. In late January, he appeared to urge an overthrow of the government, according to local media.
Why is this happening now?
The Supreme Court’s ruling precedes what could be a fiercely contested presidential election later this year — if the opposition could run. Nasheed, who was granted asylum in the U.K. in 2016, told reporters last year that he planned to return home and run for president, which the court’s ruling appears to pave the way for him to do.
There may be other reasons for the president’s crackdown. According to the Times, recent investment deals struck with China and Saudi Arabia might have bolstered his confidence through the crisis. Even if that were the case, Yameen has reason to fear a slowdown in the tourism sector, the Maldives’ largest source of foreign exchange. Tourism took a hit in 2015 when concerns over terrorism prompted Yameen to declare a State of Emergency. This time around China, the U.S., the U.K., and India, have already issued travel warnings to their citizens.
How has the world reacted?
Nasheed has called the government’s actions “brazenly illegal” and said they amounted to a coup. “Maldivians have had enough of this criminal and illegal regime,” Nasheed told the BBC. “President Yameen should resign immediately.”
U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also weighed in, describing the damage being done to democratic institutions in the Maldives as “deeply worrying” in a statement that also called on the president to lift the state of emergency.
The U.S. State Department said since his 2013 election, Yameen had “systematically alienated his coalition, jailed or exiled every major opposition political figure, deprived elected Members of Parliament of their right to represent their voters in the legislature, revised laws to erode human rights, especially freedom of expression, and weakened the institutions of government by firing any officials who refuse orders that run contrary to Maldivian law and its Constitution.”
The National Security Council tweeted that the White House stands with the Maldivian people. “The Maldivian government and military must respect the rule of law, freedom of expression, and democratic institutions,” the statement said. “The world is watching.”