The arrest of opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed in the Maldives has triggered a fresh political flare-up in the island nation. Experts fear a protracted crisis may harm the country's famous tourism sector and economy.
For many people around the world, the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives is a famous tourist destination renowned for its pristine beaches and scenic beauty. The Maldives, which is made up of around 1200 islands, has several records to its name. It is the smallest nation in Asia in terms of not only area, but also of population with just some 350,000 inhabitants.
The South Asian nation is also the world's lowest-lying country with an average ground level elevation of just 1.5 meters above sea level. The nation therefore risks being inundated in future as a result of rising sea levels.
Nevertheless, water is not the only element threating the small country. The island nation has been mired in political instability for years, which has hindered its development and growth prospects.
The spark that lit the latest bout of turmoil was the recent arrest of former President and opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed. The move comes weeks after a key ally defected from incumbent President Abdulla Yameen's governing coalition to join hands with Nasheed's opposition Maldivian Democratic Party.
Nasheed became the island-nation's first democratically elected leader in 2008, following his victory over Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, who had ruled the country for 30 years. But in the 2013 presidential election, Nasheed lost to Gayyoom's half-brother, Abdulla Yameen.
On February 22, Nasheed was apprehended by police following an order issued by a criminal court, stating that Nasheed might flee the country to avoid charges of terrorism. He stands accused of illegally ordering the detention of a judge in 2011 during his time as president.
A court decided on Monday, February 23, that the 47-year-old will remain in police custody until the conclusion of his trial. When Nasheed reportedly attempted to talk to journalists outside the court, he was allegedly denied permission and pushed to the ground by police.
"This arrest and detention is completely arbitrary and is clearly and blatantly politically motivated," Nasheed's lawyer Hisaan Hussein was quoted by Indian newspaper The Hindu as saying.
Reacting to the latest political flare-up, the United Nations called for fairness and transparency in the legal proceedings against the former president. Jens Toyberg-Frandzen, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, also appealed to the government in Malé "to allow for peaceful political dissent and for ways to seek to engage with the opposition, in the interest of long-term political stability in that country."
The authorities' treatment of the opposition leader has also drawn reactions from foreign capitals, particularly from New Delhi and Washington. "We are concerned at recent developments in the Maldives, including the arrest and manhandling of former President Nasheed," said a statement from India's foreign ministry. New Delhi also urged all concerned parties to resolve their differences "within the constitutional and legal framework of the Maldives."
Washington responded to the fresh political crisis by calling on the Maldivian government to take steps "to restore confidence in their commitment to democracy, judicial independence, and rule of law, including respect for the rights of peaceful protest and respect for due process."
This is, however, not the first time a court has ordered Nasheed's arrest. In February 2013, a court issued a similar order, following which Nasheed took refuge in the Indian High Commission in Malé for more than 10 days.
But the current crisis may also have implications for the country's economy, which is heavily-reliant on foreign tourists. The tourism sector is the backbone of Maldives' economy, accounting for a significant share of the national income and its foreign exchange reserves.
Indeed, the total contribution of travel and tourism to the country's economic output stood at 94.1 percent of the country's GDP in 2013, according to World Travel and Tourism Council. At the same time, 86.7 percent of all jobs in the country are either directly or indirectly supported by the industry.
"A protracted crisis might lead to law and order problems and many Western tourists, who bring a lot of money into the country, may shy away from this place, thus impacting Maldives' tourism industry," S Chandrasekharan, director of the India-based think tank South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), told DW.