MALE: The Maldives’ top judge was arrested Tuesday as security forces stormed the Supreme Court at dawn after President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency in the honeymoon islands.
The detention of Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and another Supreme Court judge raised the stakes in a dramatic clash after Yameen refused to comply with the court’s order to release political dissidents.
The president’s move sparked a strong US protest and warnings by several countries against travel to the upmarket holiday paradise.
Police said both men were under investigation for corruption and the court’s top administrator had also been detained.
Yameen has presided over an escalating crackdown on dissent that has battered the image of the nation and left almost all the political opposition jailed since he came to power in 2013.
On Monday he ordered the arrest of his estranged half-brother and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had sided with the main opposition.
The 80-year-old – president for 30 years until the country’s first democratic elections in 2008 – was taken from his home in the capital Male around midnight on Monday, hours after the government announced a 15-day state of emergency.
“I have not done anything to be arrested,” Gayoom said in a video message to supporters posted on Twitter.
“I urge you to remain steadfast in your resolve too. We will not give up on the reform work we are doing.”
The exiled leader of the Maldives opposition, Mohamed Nasheed, accused Yameen of acting illegally and called on the US and India to step in and help remove him from office.
“President Yameen has illegally declared martial law and overrun the state. We must remove him from power,” said Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives, in a statement issued Tuesday.
“We would like the Indian government to send an envoy, backed by its military, to free the judges and the political detainees.”
Nasheed was jailed in 2015 after he was convicted on a terrorism charge widely seen as politically motivated. He has been in exile since 2016 when he travelled to the UK for medical treatment and was granted asylum there.
He has repeatedly accused Yameen of corruption and pledged to return from exile and run for president in elections due to be held later this year, after the Supreme Court last week quashed his terrorism conviction.
On Tuesday he said he was calling on India to send troops to the strategically located archipelago, which has grown increasingly close to regional rival China under Yameen’s leadership.
The call came after heavily armed troops and police special operations units stormed the Supreme Court in the early hours, as police used pepper spray to disperse hundreds of people gathered outside.
The court’s shock decision on Thursday to order the release of political dissidents and quash the convictions of Nasheed and other exiled opposition figures has sparked a constitutional crisis.
The judges also ordered the government to restore the seats of 12 legislators sacked for defecting from Yameen’s party, a move that effectively gave the opposition a majority in parliament and the power to impeach the president.
Yameen, who has faced several unsuccessful opposition attempts to impeach him for alleged corruption, responded by shuttering parliament before moving late Monday to impose a state of emergency.
“The reason for the declaration is that the Supreme Court’s ruling was obstructing the functioning of the government,” presidential aide Azima Shukoor said on national television.
The declaration gives sweeping powers to security forces to arrest and detain individuals, curtails the powers of the judiciary and bars parliament from impeaching Yameen.
But it must be officially conveyed to parliament within two days, according to officials.
The United States said it was “troubled and disappointed” by the move and called on Yameen to comply with the rule of law.
“President Yameen has 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… and weakened the institutions of government,” the State Department said in a statement.
The United Nations, Australia, Britain, Canada, India and the US had welcomed the court’s decision, while UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the weekend called for “restraint”.
The escalating crisis has also led several countries including the US and China to advise their citizens against travelling to the Maldives, which relies heavily on tourism.
Last year nearly 1.4 million foreign holidaymakers visited the tiny nation of 1,190 coral islets famed for its pristine and secluded beaches.