The exiled former president of the Maldives said Friday that the government must abide by a Supreme Court ruling to free a group of political prisoners, hours after clashes erupted in the Indian Ocean archipelago’s capital in the wake of the surprise verdict.
Ex-President Mohammed Nasheed, who is among the prisoners ordered freed, also called for reforms in the country’s security services, telling the AP that “a small element within the military and police want to prop up the dictatorship” of President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who has rolled back many democratic reforms since coming to power five years ago.
Nasheed, speaking in Colombo, the capital of neighboring Sri Lanka, was jailed in 2016 but received asylum in Britain later that year after traveling there on medical leave from prison.
“President Yameen has held onto his autocratic ways,” Nasheed said.
Male, the capital, was quiet early Friday afternoon though an opposition leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Yameen’s opponents are planning further protests.
The Thursday night court ruling ordered the release of nine political dissidents, including Nasheed, saying their guilty verdicts had been influenced by the government.
Hundreds of joyous Nasheed supporters poured into the streets of Male after the verdict, waving flags. But clashes broke out quickly after Yameen 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 was 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 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.”
In 2015 Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison, convicted of terrorism charges in a trial widely condemned by international rights groups. He was later allowed to leave for medical treatment in Britain.
Yameen had been set to run for re-election virtually unopposed with all of his opponents either jailed or exiled.
His 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.