Maldives government in standoff with supreme court

President Abdulla Yameen is ignoring a court ruling to reinstate opposition MPs

FILE PHOTO Abdulla Yameen takes his oath as the President of Maldives during a swearing-in ceremony at the parliament in Male November 17, 2013. REUTERS/Waheed Mohamed/File Photo
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The beleaguered Maldives government on Sunday ordered police and troops to resist any move by the supreme court to arrest or impeach President Abdulla Yameen over his refusal to release political prisoners.

Police detained two opposition members of parliament as they returned to the country on Sunday, as the political crisis in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation deepened with its top court pitted against the president.

The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said its MPs tried to stage a meeting in defiance of a weekend order suspending parliament, but they were pushed back by armed troops.

Security forces have been deployed inside the parliament - known as the People's Majlis - since March last year when Mr Yameen ordered them to evict dissident lawmakers.

The president's crackdown on dissent has tarnished the Maldives' image as an upmarket holiday paradise and sparked calls from the United Nations and several countries to restore the rule of law in the fledgling democracy.

The supreme court on Thursday night ordered the authorities to release nine political dissidents and restore the seats of 12 legislators who had been sacked for defecting from Mr Yameen's party, ruling the cases were politically motivated.

But the Yameen government has so far refused to comply with the shock ruling, resisting international pressure to respect the decision.

In a national television address on Sunday, Attorney General Mohamed Anil remained defiant.

"Any supreme court order to arrest the president would be unconstitutional and illegal," he said. "So I have asked the police and the army not to implement any unconstitutional order."

The supreme court's reinstatement of the dozen legislators gave the opposition a majority in the 85-member assembly, putting it in a position to impeach Mr Yameen.

But authorities shut parliament indefinitely on Saturday to prevent such a move. Mr Yameen also sacked two police chiefs after the court's decision.

Atul Keshap, the US ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, has led international criticism of the Mr Yameen government's refusal to respect court orders.

"What security risk prevents the #Maldives #Majlis from meeting tomorrow? Why are MPs pepper sprayed in the streets and arrested on arrival at airport?" he tweeted on Sunday.

Exiled former president and current opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed described the government's refusal to obey the supreme court as a "coup".

Mr Nasheed, who was controversially convicted of a terrorism charge and jailed for 13 years in 2015, urged police and troops to uphold the constitution.

"Statements made today by AG Anil ... to disobey SC orders is tantamount to a coup. They, and President Yameen must resign immediately," he tweeted on Sunday.

"Security services must uphold the constitution and serve the Maldivian people."

The country's first democratically elected leader, Mr Nasheed was toppled in 2012 and barred from contesting elections after his 2015 terrorism conviction, which was internationally criticised as politically motivated.

He has been in exile since 2016, when he left on prison leave for medical treatment. He is currently in Colombo, meeting Maldivian dissidents based in Sri Lanka.

Several key officials have resigned due to political pressure on them to ignore the court order, the MDP said in a statement.

The MDP - which is led by Mr Nasheed - has expressed fear that any move by the government to resist the supreme court's order may trigger unrest in the nation.

The government said on Friday it had concerns about releasing those convicted for "terrorism, corruption, embezzlement, and treason".