In Maldives, Pretty Islands but Ugly Politics

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Opposition rallies in the capital, Malé, are getting rowdy, with growing crowds demanding the prisoners’ release, and the police have fired tear gas at protesters. “Defend the Constitution!” protesters yell from an artificial beach that has become their nightly rallying ground.

The president’s stance has deepened the rift between his government, which analysts say has become increasingly opaque and authoritarian, and Western nations. Mr. Yameen may feel confident he can ride out the trouble, having drawn close to China and Saudi Arabia, both of which have invested heavily in the Maldives; there was even a plan afoot last year to sell an atoll to the Saudis.

On Sunday, Atul Keshap, the American ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, asked on Twitter why members of the national legislature were “pepper sprayed in the streets and arrested on arrival at airport?”

“When will Government, police, & army implement Supreme Court orders” to free opposition politicians and restore their privileges, Mr. Keshap tweeted.

The opposition says the president is scared to free the prisoners because he might lose his influence in Parliament, and possibly his job, if the opposition lawmakers were allowed to return.

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President Abdulla Yameen of the Maldives has developed closer ties to China and Saudi Arabia, both of which have invested heavily in his country.

Credit
Mohamed Waheed/Reuters

But it is hard to decipher exactly what is happening in the upper reaches of the government. Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, a government spokesman, said on Monday that the president did not intend to disobey the Supreme Court, but that “procedural measures” needed to be addressed.

However, The Associated Press reported that the legal affairs minister, Azima Shakoor, said the government did not believe that the high court order “can be enforced.”

Unlike the sparkling waters that attract tourists willing to spend $2,000 a night for a bungalow, it seems that little about the Maldives political equation is clean. Several Supreme Court judges have been accused of corruption, and suspicions are growing that the court has been bought with opposition money.

The court ruled that the nine dissidents had not been fairly tried. Two remain outside the country, including Mohamed Nasheed, a former president who has become an international celebrity because of his urgent — and many say brilliant — pleas to mitigate climate change. In 2009, he held a cabinet meeting underwater.

Mr. Nasheed has vowed to run again in elections scheduled for this year, and suddenly, thanks to the Supreme Court, the next election could be a fierce one.

Another figure to watch is Mohamed Nazim, a former defense minister who was sentenced to 11 years for arms smuggling, who is under house arrest. Many Maldivians say they believe he was framed, and he still commands deep support within the military, leading to concerns that the security services could split.

Fear of political turmoil and possibly street violence increased over the weekend, after allies of the president accused the Supreme Court of plotting to impeach him.

So far, the court has not indicated what it would do if the president fails to release the political prisoners. The security services arrested two more dissidents on Sunday as they flew into the Maldives.

The tensions undermine the tourism industry, the largest contributor to the country’s economy. In 2015, when the government declared a state of emergency because of fears of terrorism, tourist bookings dropped and the economic growth rate plummeted.

Since last month, the State Department has warned travelers to the Maldives to exercise increased caution because of the threat of terrorism, and the British government issued an advisory on Friday that visitors to Malé should “avoid any protests or rallies.” On Monday, China advised its citizens to avoid the Maldives entirely until conditions stabilized.

Some younger activists seemed invigorated by the standoff, however.

“For the first time in Maldivian history, a court has ruled in favor of the people and we will protest until it is enforced,’’ said Mickail Naseem, an opposition supporter. “I have never been more hopeful for change.”

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