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Maldives extends state of emergency after opposition barred from parliament

media Maldivian police officers stand guard near the MDP (Maldives Democratic Party) opposition party headquarters REUTERS/Stringer NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

The Maldives parliament on Tuesday voted a controversial bill to extend the country's state of emergency for another 30 days, after the government filed a motion to protect "national security". The measures have been criticised by both the European Union and opposition MPs.

The motion to extend the state of emergency was passed by 38 votes to two on Tuesday, but with only half of the members of the 85-strong parliament present.

The opposition boycotted the vote dismissing it as illegitimate, thus depriving the ruling party of the constitutionally required 43 majority.

The vote was passed anyway by a simple majority, in the interests of "national security", government officials said.

The reason given: to prevent a "judicial coup".

"We have enough evidence to show the Supreme Court was trying to impeach the president," Fisheries Minister, Mohamed Shainee, a member of the Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) which is part of the ruling coalition, told RFI.

"We found out that there are some cases of bribery, corruption, we started looking into these cases, then the Supreme Court started issuing orders saying you can’t look into these matters [...] For this reason the government had to step in to stop this chaos that had unfolded on the 1st of February.”

Court frees political prisoners

That was the day the Supreme Court cleared nine opposition politicians of terrorism charges and freed those who were in prison.

Among those cleared was former president Mohamed Nasheed, President Abdulla Yameen's main rival who is currently in exile in Sri Lanka.

"It’s not normal and it’s not practiced anywhere in the world, where the Supreme Court can themselves take issues, without the prosecutor or the attorney general being informed," says Shainee.

The goverment argued the Supreme Court order acted against the constitution.

"How can they be released even before their cases have been heard in court?" asks Shainee, accusing the Supreme Court of nullifying the initial cases, "without any justificiation."

State of emergency

Yameen declared a state of emergency on 5 February, after thousands of opposition supporters defied the ban on large public gatherings and held a protest demanding his resignation and the freeing of political prisoners.

The administration then arrested two Supreme Court judges along with Yameen’s estranged half-brother, for an alleged conspiracy to topple the government.

"By the state of emergency declaration the president has hijacked the constitution, the parliament and the judiciary because he has suspended the powers of these arms of the state," says Abdulla Shahid, an MP with the opposition Maldivian Democartic Party (MDP). "By these actions, the president has completely and utterly destroyed the democratic principles enshrined in the constitution."

He accuses Yameen of setting up a military dictatorship.

"The military and police physically prevented 12 members of parliament from entering the parliament," he says. "We were physically thrown out. If they would have been allowed to go in, we would have had a comfortable majority to reject the motion presented by the president."

The European Union considers the situation serious enough to dispatch a delegation to the Indian Ocean nation earlier this month and urged the authorities to ensure that Maldivians' fundamental political and civil rights would be protected.

Coup fears

"There’s no curfew, life is normal," Imjad Jaleel, the chief communications officer at the president's office insists.

"Business goes on as usual, all schools are open, tourism is not impacted, tourists can come and go. It’s just a fear that’s been instilled in the minds of people, because state of emergency equates to things really very unpleasant, but in Maldives that’s not the case."

The state of emergency measures is necessary because "right now there is a threat to the national security", he said. "There is a threat that the constitution may be breached."

"Essentially it's just a big mess," Gareth Price at the UK's Chatham House thinktank told RFI.

"The president didn't win an election, he lost a popular vote, the Supreme Court annulled the results of the election and installed him anyway. It's essentially been made up as it goes along with a person in charge who doesn't want to give up power in any way."

Judges change their minds

Yameen won a presidential election run-off in November 2013, narrowly defeating the favourite, Nasheed, by patching together a last-minute coalition his ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) made with Maldivian business magnate Qasim Ibrahim's Jumhooree Party.

"At the root of this whole crisis is the judiciary," reckons Price.

"They had a brief moment of conscience where they thought having a whole bunch of political prisoners was a bad thing, now they're supporting him [president Yameen].

The opposition would have had a majority in parliament to block the state of emergency extension "were it not for the fact a whole bunch of MPs had been expelled for quitting the government", adds Price.

For government spokesman Jaleel, their suspension was normal.

"The attorney general put in a case saying that if a parliament member was elected through a political party and then he crossed to the other party then he's going against the people's will, which is to uphold the government manifesto," he argues.

Paradise lost

The crisis has dented the Maldives' image as a popular holiday destination, loved by honeymooners.

"The beautiful image of the Maldives as a paradise has been tarnished," Shahid says.

"President Yameen should step back and rescind the state of emergency, that's when we'll get the image of the honeymooners' paradise back."

Neighbouring India meanwhile has warned it might send troops to the small island nation to curb the crisis after Nasheed urged the Indian government to step in.

"There is a question whereby India recognises that it needs to deal with regional crises if it wants to be treated as a global actor," says Price, nonetheless dismissing the prospect of military intervention, saying "sanctions are more likely".

"It's a very small country with many potential leaders and it's a strategically significant country given it's a geographical situation," Price concludes. "But simply it's a mess."

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