By MOHAMED SHARUHAAN
MALE, Maldives (AP) — The political crisis in the Maldives deepened Monday, as the president of the island nation said the Supreme Court had overstepped its authority in ordering the release of a group of imprisoned opposition leaders.
The surprise judicial ruling last week has led to an increasingly tense standoff between President Yameen Abdul Gayoom and the Supreme Court, with protests spilling into the streets of the capital, Male, and soldiers in riot gear deployed to the parliament building to stop lawmakers from meeting.
Yameen, in a letter to the court released by his office, said the order had encroached on the powers of the state and was an “infringement of national security and public interest.” He urged the court to “review the concerns” of the government.
Earlier, Legal Affairs Minister Azima Shakoor said that “the government does not believe that the Supreme Court ruling to release the political prisoners can be enforced.”
Officials say the court has not properly responded to a series of letters citing problems with implementing the order, including that the cases against the political prisoners are at different legal stages. A Supreme Court statement on Sunday said “there are no obstacles in implementing the ruling … and that this has been informed to the Prosecutor General’s office.”
There was no immediate comment from Yameen’s main rival, exiled former President Mohammed Nasheed, who is among the prisoners ordered freed.
The Supreme Court ruled that the political leaders’ guilty verdicts had been politically influenced. The ruling has led to protests by opposition supporters urging the government to obey the order. Clashes erupted between police and the political opponents on Thursday and Friday. Soldiers surrounded the parliament building over the weekend to stop lawmakers from entering.
The United Nations and several foreign governments, including the United States, have urged the Maldives to respect the court order.
Nasheed has been living in exile in Britain since 2016 after being given asylum when he traveled there on medical leave from prison.
In addition to ordering the release of the political prisoners, the court also reinstated 12 lawmakers who had been ousted for switching allegiance to the opposition. When those lawmakers return, Yameen’s Progressive Party of the Maldives will lose its majority in the 85-member parliament, which could result in the legislative body functioning as a rival power to the president.
Known for its luxury tourist resorts, the Maldives became a multiparty democracy 10 years ago after decades of autocratic rule by the current president’s half brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
But the nation lost much of its democratic gains after Yameen, who has maintained a tight grip on power, was elected in 2013. He had been set to run for re-election this year virtually unopposed, with all of his opponents either jailed or exiled.
On Friday, Nasheed said he would mount a fresh challenge for the presidency this year.
Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison after he was convicted under the Maldives’ anti-terror laws. The trial was widely condemned by international rights groups.