The political turmoil in this Indian Ocean Republic, created by the sudden resignation of all 13 members of President Mohamed Nasheed’s cabinet, deepened on Friday when opposition MPs accused the high court judges of bowing to government pressure and extending the detention of opposition leaders Abdullah Yamin and Gasim Ibrahim who had been charged with attempting to overthrow the government.
A prominent Maldivian lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the court order as a “judicial farce”.
He said the judges had stated in their ruling that there was no case against Yamin or Gasim but nevertheless they were extending the detention period to give more time to police to complete their investigation.
According to the lawyer, the real reason was that the judges feared that the President would not recommend their names to the Majlis for a new term if they ruled in favour of the defendants.
President Nasheed has faced several political setbacks since assuming office in November 2008.
After the resignation of his two key coalition allies business tycoon Gasim Ibrahim and fellow Presidential candidate Dr. Hassan Saeed- barely 100 days into his presidency, Nasheed and his MDP were handed an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the opposition DRP-PA coalition in the July 2009 Majlis (Parliament) elections.
The en masse resignation of the cabinet last week had pre-empted a crunch vote of no-confidence in the country’s education minister Musthafa Lutjy, which the opposition were expected to secure by a comfortable margin.
Earlier in the week, the government pushed through the controversial long-term lease of its main international airport to an Indian consortium, in the face of public calls for greater transparency in the deal and a parliamentary motion to seek its approval.
President Nasheed announced the mass cabinet resignations last Tuesday at a press conference at his waterfront office in Male.
Flanked by all members of what was his council of ministers, Nasheed blamed the Maldives’ Majlis (Parliament) for ‘blocking and vetoing’ key policy initiatives of the government.
He also said that, ‘as the country's Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and police, he would order an immediate investigation into cases where the Majlis had violated the spirit of the Constitution’.
Shortly after President Nasheed’s announcement, key opposition MPs Abdulla Yamin, leader of the People's Alliance (PA) and Gasim Ibrahim, leader of the Republican Party, were arrested and taken to the police detention centre at Dhoonidhoo Island, across the channel from Male.
The resigned Attorney-General Husnu Suood later held a press conference at the President’s Office to announce that the two legislators had been arrested on suspicion of corruption and bribery.
Police, however, later confirmed that the two MPs had been charged not with corruption but with sedition, under Article 29 of the country’s penal code.
Member of Parliament and Information Minister in former President Gayoom’s administration, Mohamed Nasheed (current President’s namesake but no relation) has said in his blog that article 29 of the Penal Code contradicts the Constitution in many ways and a bill for its abolition is already on the agenda of the Parliament.
A diplomatic source confirmed that a planned visit to the Maldives by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris tomorrow (Monday) had been ‘cancelled at the last minute’.
Questions are being raised about the motive behind the mass Cabinet resignations, with accusations that it was a “soap opera”, after many of the resigned ministers continuing to utilize their state vehicles and perks. Former Defence Minister Amin Faisal was also seen entering and leaving the headquarters of the country’s National Defence Force.
The opposition People’s Alliance, appealing for international support in freeing the two opposition leaders, said that “there is no doubt that the mass resignation of the Cabinet was pre planned and predictably was a direct request from the President himself”.
The opposition statement also read that, as a result, “all government entities are at a halt” and that, as a result, it could “lead to a military style government”.
A legal expert noted that “President Nasheed is drowning in a quagmire of his own making, and doesn’t know how to save himself”.
However, the President himself seemed confident enough. He said in his weekly address to the nation on Friday that his priority at the moment was to “stamp out corruption” and that he would lead the country to a prosperous future.
Outgoing Foreign Minister Shaheed said that they “would come back stronger”.
So, many questions remain unanswered - can President Nasheed rule without a cabinet? Can he extricate himself from the constitutional crisis that he himself had created? Is this the end of the road for him?.