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Trouble in paradise

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The Maldives is in the news again but this time for growing political turmoil rather than celebrities vacationing on its sun-dappled islands. The events that swiftly unfolded after the Supreme Court ordered the release of nine dissidents and cleared the name of former President Mohammad Nasheed is a tale of caution for democracies.

Last week, the Supreme Court ordered the release of a group of opposition politicians. It also ruled that the 2015 trial of former President Mohamed Nasheed, who is living in exile, had been unconstitutional. The ruling also reinstated 12 parliamentarians who had been sacked by Maldives President Yameen, essentially paving the way for the 85-seat House to impeach the president.

The country’s police commissioner said he would enforce the court’s ruling – in response, the government of President Yameen sacked him. The army has now been ordered to resist any attempt to impeach or remove President Yameen and went so far as to surround parliament to prevent it from sitting.

Events took an even more serious turn after the President ordered Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and another judge, Ali Hameed, to be arrested hours after the government declared a state of emergency for 15 days. Another high profile arrest was former President Gayoom, who was the autocratic leader of Maldives for three decades and is half-brother to the current president. Gayoom was credited with assisting Yameen to come into power under questionable circumstances in 2013 and was a key figure of the current administration until he fell out with Yameen.

Since President Yameen took power, the country has faced questions over freedom of speech, the detention of opponents as well as the independence of the judiciary and media. The judiciary in particular has been under fire by independent analysts who see it as a partisan institution. Under Yameen’s watch, capital punishment was reintroduced in the Maldives and Sharia law was tightened.

The Maldivian courts had ordered a woman to be stoned to death for adultery and also wanted a 16-year-old girl to be publicly flogged on a charge of premarital sex, even though she was a victim of rape. Both were retracted after international pressure. The judiciary was also faulted for several trials that were seen as biased, which saw Yameen’s opponents jailed. However, now that the Supreme Court has made a decision popular with the international community, such criticism has been notably absent. 

The Maldives situation is a dire warning of what happens when institutions are hollowed out by decades of authoritarian rule by power-hungry politicians. A balance between parliament, judiciary, and the executive is at the core of a functioning democracy and one branch should not be allowed to swallow up the others. Systemic inroads made into the independence of these institutions will eventually lead to the whole system collapsing and destroying the rights and freedoms of the population.

For now, former president Nasheed has called on India and the US to intervene, which may lead to a longer standoff as well as trigger difficult presidential elections towards the end of the year. Sri Lanka, which came so close to the same sort of institutional degradation not so long ago, should remain extra vigilant of not just protecting but promoting institutional independence.

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