- Associated Press - Friday, February 2, 2018

MALE, Maldives (AP) — The exiled former president of the Maldives said Friday he will run again for office, hours after a surprise Supreme Court decision to free a group of political prisoners led to unrest in the capital of the Indian Ocean archipelago.

Police arrested two opposition supporters Friday evening as protesters clashed with police for a second night. They urged the government to obey Thursday night’s surprise court order to release the nine political prisoners.

Current President Yameen Abdul Gayoom had been set to run for re-election virtually unopposed, with all of his opponents either jailed or exiled. But ex-President Mohammed Nasheed, who is among the prisoners ordered freed, said he would challenge Yameen, who has rolled back many democratic reforms since coming to power five years ago.

“I can contest and I will contest and hopefully we will win it again,” Nasheed told the AP in Colombo, the capital of neighboring Sri Lanka.

Nasheed was jailed in 2016 but received asylum in Britain later that year after traveling there on medical leave from prison. He has lived in exile ever since.
Nasheed also called for reforms in the country’s security services, telling the AP that “a small element within the military and police want to prop up the dictatorship” of Yameen.

On Friday evening, hundreds of people gathered in Male and a scuffle erupted when police asked the protesters to stay clear of a road.

The Thursday night court ruling ordered the release of the political dissidents, saying their guilty verdicts had been influenced by politics. It also ordered new trials for all nine. It was not immediately clear how retrials would affect the upcoming elections, but the opposition alliance welcomed the ruling in a statement, saying it “effectively ends President Yameen’s authoritarian rule.”

Hundreds of joyous Nasheed supporters poured into the streets of Male after the verdict, waving flags. But clashes broke out quickly after Yameen fired the country’s police chief, whose department had announced that it would uphold the Supreme Court verdict.

The clashes lasted about three hours, with police dispersing rock-throwing crowds using pepper spray and batons.

Atul Keshap, the U.S. ambassador to the Maldives, welcomed the Supreme Court order. “I urge the government and security services to respect this ruling, which bolsters democracy and rule of law for all Maldivians,” he wrote on Twitter.

Human rights group Amnesty International said the court decision should be a turning point for the nation.

The group’s South Asia director, Biraj Patnaik, said the ruling must be implemented and the government’s “witch-hunt against the political opposition and other critics” must come to an end.

He said re-trials of the opposition leaders must be conducted in line with international standards, and authorities must restore judicial independence.

Known for its luxury tourist resorts, the Maldives became a multiparty democracy 10 years ago after decades of autocratic rule by the current president’s half brother, strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. But the nation lost much of its democratic gains after Yameen was elected in 2013. He has maintained a tight grip on power, controlling institutions such as the judiciary, police and the bureaucracy. The half brothers have since fallen out, and the former leader has joined the opposition.

The court also reinstated 12 lawmakers who had been ousted for switching allegiance to the opposition. When those lawmakers return, Yameen’s Progressive Party of the Maldives will lose its majority in the 85-member Parliament.

The government said in a statement it was trying to “vet and clarify” the court’s ruling and “will work to engage, and consult with, the Supreme Court in order to comply with the ruling in line with proper procedure and the rule of law.”

In 2015, Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison, convicted of terrorism charges in a trial widely condemned by international rights groups.

Yameen’s former deputy, Ahmed Adeeb, who had been jailed on accusations of plotting to kill the president, was also ordered released.

Adeeb was sentenced to 33 years in prison in 2016, charged with corruption, possession of illegal firearms and planning to kill Yameen by triggering an explosion on his speedboat. However, FBI investigators said they found no evidence of a bomb blast.

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