Opponents of the Maldives government clashed with police on the streets of the capital early Friday, demanding the release of imprisoned politicians, included the exiled former president, whose convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court.
The Thursday night court ruling ordered the release of the politicians, including ex-President Mohamed Nasheed, saying their guilty verdicts had been influenced by the government.
Hundreds of flag-waving Nasheed supporters took to the streets of Male, the capital of the Indian Ocean archipelago. But clashes broke out quickly after President Yameen Abdul Gayoom fired the country’s police chief, whose department had announced that it would uphold the Supreme Court verdict.
Attorney General Mohamed Anil said Police Chief Ahmed Areef was fired after the president had been repeatedly unable to reach him on the telephone. Yameen named Areef’s deputy, Ahmed Saudhee, as interim chief.
The clashes lasted about three hours, with police dispersing rock-throwing crowds using pepper spray and batons. At least one injured police officer was taken to a hospital. It was not immediately clear if anyone was arrested, though some protesters were seen being taken away by police.
The ruling could allow Nasheed, the nation’s first democratically elected president, to challenge Yameen when he seeks re-election later this year.
Atul Keshap, the U.S. ambassador to the Maldives, welcomed the Supreme Court order. “I urge the government and security services to respect this ruling, which bolsters democracy and rule of law for all Maldivians,” he wrote on Twitter.
An archipelago known for its luxury tourist resorts, Maldives became a multiparty democracy 10 years ago after decades of autocratic rule. But it lost much of its democratic gains after Yameen was elected in 2013. He has maintained a tight grip on power, controlling institutions like the judiciary, police and the bureaucracy.
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 a majority in the 85-member Parliament.
The government said in a statement it was trying to “vet and clarify” the court’s ruling and “will work to engage, and consult with, the Supreme Court in order to comply with the ruling in line with proper procedure and the rule of law.”
The opposition alliance in a statement welcomed the ruling and called for Yameen’s resignation, saying the court’s decision “effectively ends President Yameen’s authoritarian rule.”
Nasheed had been sentenced to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges but was allowed to get medical treatment in Britain, where he received asylum.
The ruling could lead to him becoming eligible to run in the presidential election expected to take place between August and November.
In a statement he made last month while in neighboring Sri Lanka, Nasheed said the opposition parties were in discussion to field a common candidate if he is unable to run. “President Yameen wants a coronation; not an election. We won’t let that happen,” he said.
Yameen had been set to run for re-election virtually unopposed with all of his opponents either jailed or exiled.
Yameen’s former deputy Ahmed Adeeb, who had been jailed on accusations of plotting to kill the president, was also ordered released.
In 2016, Adeeb was sentenced to 33 years in prison for alleged corruption, possession of illegal firearms and planning to kill Yameen by triggering an explosion on his speedboat. However, FBI investigators said they found no evidence of a bomb blast.