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A new cycle of political turmoil

Srinivas Mazumdaru, Gabriel DomínguezNovember 5, 2015

After declaring a state of emergency amid reports of assassination attempts and rising security threats, the Maldives has now impeached the VP. But how does the move affect the nation's already tense political landscape?

Malediven Polizei Politik
Image: dapd

In a sign of intensifying political tensions, the Maldivian parliament voted on Thursday, November 5, to impeach the country's vice president; Ahmed Adeeb, who will be charged with terrorism for plotting to kill President Abdulla Yameen. If found guilty, Adeeb - the country's second vice president to be impeached in three months - could face up to 25 years in jail.

The impeachment vote came a day after the president imposed a national state of emergency, thus suspending a number of basic constitutional freedoms in the Indian Ocean archipelago for a period of 30 days.

The government said the reason for the move was the discovery of a large cache of arms in two different locations in the country, and that some weapons and ammunitions were still believed to be missing from the armory of the national security forces.

The authorities added they have information that some individuals are planning to use these weapons and ammunition, a development which poses "a serious threat to the people and to national security."

Arrests and dismissals

The declaration comes at a time of heightened security concerns in the island-nation, with President Yameen claiming he was the target of a recent assassination attempt, when an explosion struck the speed boat in which he and his entourage were traveling. While Yameen escaped unhurt, his wife and several aides were injured.

Malediven Vize-Präsident Ahmed Adeeb
Ahmed Adeeb will be charged with terrorism for plotting to kill President YameenImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Kodikara

The boat blast, alongside subsequent raids conducted by the authorities, has led to the sacking and/or arrest of some high-ranking officials, including the Defense Minister and senior military personnel. Police have also detected and defused explosive devices near the presidential palace as well as a harbor in the western part of the capital, Male.

But while the government tries to justify the state of emergency, rights groups have criticized the move as aimed at bolstering the administration's tight grip on power, particularly as the declaration was made just days before a planned anti-government protest by the country's main opposition, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

'Attacks on dissent'

Amnesty International (AI), for instance, said the suspension of basic rights raises the prospect of further attacks on dissent and human rights in the country. "The Maldivian authorities have a disturbing track-record of suppressing freedom of expression and any form of opposition, which has intensified over the last two years," said Abbas Faiz, AI's Maldives Researcher.

"It is vital that authorities respect their obligations under international human rights law during this period of emergency," he added.

Politically motivated trials?

Countries such as the US and the UK have also urged the government to immediately restore full constitutional freedoms by ending the state of emergency. They also called for an end to politically motivated prosecutions and detentions.

Malediven Präsident Abdulla Yameen verhängt Notstand
Yameen declared a state of emergency on November 4, citing increased security threatsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

The Maldives, which is made up of around 1,200 islands and is better known for its picturesque beaches and holiday resorts, has been mired in political instability for years, which has hindered its development and growth prospects.

The country's transition to democracy following 30 years of autocratic rule - under President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom - has been a rough ride. While in 2008 MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed won the first multi-party election - becoming the South Asian nation's first democratically elected president - he was forced to resign in February 2012 following a mutiny by police.

And in the bitterly contested 2013 presidential election, Nasheed lost to Gayoom's half-brother, Yameen. But the election did not put an end to the power struggle. And the view that the current government is trying to muzzle its opponents has been reinforced by the jailing of several opposition politicians, including Nasheed, who was sentenced in March to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges.

Human rights organizations have slammed the trial of the 48-year-old politician - found guilty of ordering the arrest and detention of a senior judge when he was in power - as politically motivated.

Dr. M. Samatha, a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), told DW that the arrest of the former president and other opposition leaders, along with the continuing crackdown on opposition parties, are the result of a power struggle, rather than of a real or perceived security threat to the nation.

"The present government is critical of international concerns about the arrests and has repeatedly asserted its actions on a basis that it is the internal political matter of the Maldives," Samatha told DW.

Malediven Strand Tourismus Meer Palmen
The Maldives is renowned worldwide for its picturesque beaches and holiday resortsImage: AP

"The recent declaration of a state of emergency is linked to consolidating the President's power at any cost and will only push the Maldives' democratic development into uncertainty. Threat to national security is a ruse to suppress democratic voices in the country," said Samatha.

A duty to investigate

However, N. Sathiya Moorthy, director of the Chennai Chapter of India-based Observer Research Foundation, stresses that these two issues need to be addressed independently.

"The government's claims that the VP committed 'high treason' and that some military officers are 'traitors', if taken as truth, justify the state of emergency," he told DW.

The analyst explains that while there are indeed charges of human rights violations in the country, the government is "duty-bound" to investigate the security threats to the satisfaction of the larger sections of the population and the international community.

Religious extremism

There have also been increasing concerns about Islamic radicalization in the Sunni-majority country, with the government recently passing a controversial terrorism law aiming to deal with Maldivians sympathizing with the "Islamic State" (IS) group parties.

In fact, only weeks before the boat blast - which the government initially described as a possible mechanical failure - a video emerged on social media showing the IS flag and three masked men threatening to kill both the president and vice president and to bomb hotel resorts.

They also demanded the release of Sheikh Imran Abdulla, a leader of the Islamic conservative Adhaalath, or Justice party, who was arrested in May following anti-government protests.

Malediven ehemaliger Präsident Mohamed Nasheed
Former President Nasheed was sentenced in March to 13 years in prison on terrorism chargesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Mukherjee

Although the radical militant group is not being blamed for the blast, this does not mean the group has no influence on the island nation, as Sathiya Moorthy pointed out. In a recent analysis published by the Times of India, the expert says that at least half a dozen Maldivians have died in the Syrian war.

Another half a dozen or more might have smuggled themselves to the war front. Considering the nation's total population of 345,000 this is a relatively high number, particularly when compared to other nations including India, he explained.

"IS or no IS, religious fundamentalism has been on the rise in what is a constitutionally Sunni-Islam state," wrote Sathiya Moorthy, adding that even the pro-democracy groups led among others by jailed ex-president Nasheed could not do much to reverse that trend and be seen as going against national sentiment.

Nonetheless, some doubt that the IS and other security threats, justify the declaration of a state of emergency.

One reason often mentioned in this regard is that the foreign minister herself asserted that the country's "airports, transport hubs, and tourist resorts remain completely secure;" that the government has received no evidence to suggest otherwise, and that the emergency measures put in place are a "pre-emptive and precautionary action."

"There are contradictions, in the government's statements regarding the security situation," criticized analyst Samatha. "The Maldives had come through a difficult phase of authoritarian rule and this move by the present government will reverse the hope of people for democratic governance."

Reconciliation needed

Given the heightened tensions, experts believe that a dialogue with all the political parties and players with a sense of reconciliation is needed to improve the situation. "All the political parties should make an effort to form a National government of reconciliation, said Samatha.

Analyst Moorthy has a similar view. He believes President Yameen should initiate political reconciliation, particularly with the MDP, but only once the plot probe is over and the state of emergency is lifted.

"Together, the leaders of the top parties also should initiate a joint national process for reviewing the 2008 Constitution, which is full of good intentions, but not the best practices," said Sathiya Moorthy.