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State of emergency declared in Maldives as opposition leader and judges arrested

The emergency decree has been criticised overseas.

The Maldives opposition leader and two Supreme Court judges have been arrested hours after the government declared a state of emergency.

The charges against opposition leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom include bribery and attempting to overthrow the government, his lawyer, Maumoon Hameed, said on Twitter.

Mr Gayoom was president from 1978 to 2008, when Maldives became a multiparty democracy, and is the half brother of the current president, under whose rule the archipelago has lost many of its democratic gains.

The 15-day emergency decree issued late on Monday gives the government sweeping powers to make arrests, search and seize property and restricts freedom of assembly, officials said.

Soon after the declaration, security forces stormed into the Supreme Court building, where Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and judge Ali Hamid were arrested. The charges against them have not been specified.

The whereabouts of the court’s other two judges were not known on Tuesday morning.

Since the surprise, unanimous ruling last week ordering the release of imprisoned opposition leaders, president Yameen Abdul Gayoom has lashed out at the court, while opposition protests have spilled into the streets of the capital, Male, and soldiers in riot gear have stopped politicians from meeting in the parliament building.

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Former Maldives president and opposition leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is being taken to prison by police (Mohamed Sharuhaan/AP)

In a statement issued after the state of emergency was announced on state television, Mr Yameen said “though certain rights will be restricted, general movements, services and businesses will not be affected”.

In a letter to the court released by the president’s office, Mr Yameen said the court’s order to release prisoners had encroached on the powers of the state and was an “infringement of national security and public interest.”

He urged the court to “review the concerns” of the government.

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Maldivian opposition supporters scuffle with security forces officers during a protest (Mohamed Sharuhaan/AP)

The government did not comment on soldiers entering the Supreme Court building or on Mr Gayoom’s arrest, but the president’s main rival, who lives in exile, urged people not to obey what he called an “unlawful order.”

“This declaration is unconstitutional and illegal,” former president Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected leader, said in a statement.

Mr Nasheed was one of the opposition leaders the Supreme Court had ordered freed, ruling that the guilty verdicts had been politically influenced.

The United Nations, United States and other foreign governments have urged the Maldives to respect the court order.

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A Maldivian opposition protestor demanding the release of political prisoners engulfed in tear gas fired by police during a protest (Mohamed Sharuhaan/AP)

The US also strongly criticised the emergency decree, which State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said also imposes travel restrictions.

Mr Yameen has “systematically alienated his coalition, jailed or exiled every major opposition political figure” since his election in 2013, Ms Nauert said.

She called on Mr Yameen, the army, and police to comply with the rule of law, and for the constitutional rights of Maldivians to be restored.

In addition to ordering the release of the political prisoners, the court also reinstated 12 politicians who had been ousted for switching allegiance to the opposition.

When those politicians return, Mr Yameen’s Progressive Party of the Maldives will lose its majority in the 85-member parliament, which could result in the legislative body functioning as a rival power to the president.

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