The president of the Maldives has declared a state of emergency, citing a threat to citizens’ safety and national security.
Abdulla Yameen’s decree, which came into effect at midday local time (0700 GMT), suspends all basic rights and gives the security forces sweeping powers to arrest suspects before a major anti-government rally planned later this week.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic party (MDP), whose leader Mohamed Nasheed is in jail following his conviction earlier this year under anti-terror laws, has organised the protest.
The Maldives has suffered acute political instability for several years, but a new cycle of chaos and unrest appears to be intensifying.
“President Yameen has declared state of emergency to ensure the safety and security of every citizen,” his spokesman Muaz Ali tweeted.
In a statement to the nation, Yameen, who took power in a contested election in 2013, said there were groups planning to use weapons and explosives.
“My beloved citizens, I assure you, that in enforcing this decree, the rights and freedoms stated in the constitution will only be restricted within the limits of … the constitution, and only to the extent strictly required by the situation,” Yameen said.
Seven articles of the constitution have been suspended, including those guaranteeing citizens of the Indian Ocean island nation the rights of assembly, free expression, freedom from arbitrary detention and freedom of movement.
The state of emergency was limited to 30 days and a curfew would not be imposed, the government said.
Dunya Maumoon, the foreign minister, described the measures as “precautionary action by the government in light of several security threats that have emerged in the last week”.
“As a government we have a responsibility to our citizens to ensure they can go about their daily lives in peace and security. We are determined to root out a small minority who seem intent on causing damage to people and property,” she said.
On Wednesday the streets of Malé, the capital, were quiet, but soldiers had cordoned off water and power plants. Residents said raids were continuing.
The British high commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, James Dauris, said he was “most concerned by restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms in the Maldives from today”.
Thoriq Hamid, from the NGO Transparency Maldives, said his organisation was “extremely … concerned that the situation has escalated to this point”.
The move comes at a time of heightened tensions following anexplosion on Yameen’s speedboat on 28 September that wounded his wife and two others.
Yameen was unharmed in the blast, and the FBI has said there is no evidence it was caused by a bomb.
But the authorities say it was an attempt on his life. Yameen arrested the vice-president, Ahmed Adeeb, on 24 October after accusing him of “high treason” and linking him to the boat blast.
This week the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) said it had found a remote-controlled bomb near the president’s official residence and safely defused it.
Officials on Wednesday said several discoveries of arms and explosives had been made, though the whereabouts of other weapons and ammunition missing from state armouries remained unknown.
Further searches were under way on Wednesday evening, with local media reporting that at least one suspected explosive device had been found.
“The purpose of today’s announcement is to send a clear message. Those who seek to cause harm and unrest through violence – whether their aims are political, religious or otherwise – have no place in our country. We are a young, vibrant democracy and will do all we can to uphold those values,” said Maumoon.
The MDP rally was aimed at pressuring Yameen to release Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the country and an internationally recognised climate change campaigner.
Nasheed left power in 2012 amid protests, forced out by what his supporters claim was a coup.
Eva Abdulla, an MDP member of parliament, said the rally would proceed as planned. “We saw this coming. Everything has been leading up to this. This is the last straw – the only straw – left for Yameen. He has totally lost grip on governance. He doesn’t have the public with him and any control is based on fear and intimidation,” she said.
The continuing political instability in the Maldives is likely to damage its vital tourist trade, a key employer and earner of foreign exchange. Every year more than a million tourists visit the Maldives, an almost exclusively Sunni Muslim nation composed of 1,192 small coral islands, with a population of 340,000.
White sandy beaches, turquoise waters, shallow lagoons and secluded islets draw holidaymakers from all over the developed world as well as celebrities seeking privacy.
Officials said there was no threat to resort security and the Maldives remained a safe destination for international visitors.
The Maldives’ economy has faltered in recent years and the country suffers from overcrowding, high unemployment rates and substance abuse. The declaration of a state of emergency comes amid a bitter power struggle between the president and Adeeb, with factions within the police and army supporting different political players.
The dispute has weakened the government at a time of growing popular anger over the continuing detention of Nasheed and economic problems.
In an interview with the Guardian in February, Nasheed called on the international community to consider introducing sanctions against the current government. He also appealed to tourists travelling to the Maldives to reconsider their views on the popular holiday destination. “It is good and necessary to have a relaxing holiday but important [they] understand what is happening here too,” he said.
The incarceration of Nasheed, who was convicted on charges of using the military to arrest a senior judge when in office, has been severely criticised by the UN and international rights groups.
There are growing fears of Islamic extremism in the Maldives, fuelled in part by the political instability since the departure from power of autocratic ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 2008.
The Australian government last week told its citizens to exercise a “high degree of caution” while travelling to Malé, “due to the possibility of civil unrest and the threat of terrorist attacks”.
The justification for the state of emergency on the basis of a security threat could be dangerous, Abdulla, the MDP parliamentarian, said. “My worry is we are a hotbed for jihadi recruitment at the moment so to use this to get at political opponents is irresponsible in the extreme. They could be turning a blind eye to the real problem and endangering us all as a result.”
According to Raaje TV, a local broadcaster, the government has warned media outlets their licences will be suspended “if broadcasts threaten national security”.
Source: The Guardian