Mass protest in Maldives over ex-leader’s arrest

SUPPORTERS of former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed streamed to the tiny capital island Male Friday for a mass protest against his detention on terror charges, which has sparked international condemnation.

Organisers said they expected a “big crowd” for the protest, held a day after a court gave the opposition leader just three days to prepare his defence against charges his supporters say are trumped up and denied him access to his legal team.

Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected leader, was arrested on Sunday and charged with terrorism over the detention of criminal court judge Abdullah Mohamed in 2012, when he was still president.

The United States and regional power India have voiced concern over the charges, which carry a jail sentence of more than 10 years, and the manner in which Nasheed was dragged roughly into court on Monday and denied both legal access and medical treatment.

The dramatic arrest came amid growing opposition to the government of President Abdulla Yameen, whose spokesman on Tuesday denied that the move to prosecute Nasheed was politically motivated.

A spokeswoman for Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party said hundreds of party supporters began arriving in Male Friday for opposition rally, with some supporters travelling 18 hours by boat.

“The rally is to pressure the government to release (former) president Nasheed,” Shauna Aminath told AFP.

“The authorities have tried to scare away people, but we expect a very big crowd.”

The opposition has held regular night-time rallies for the last year to protest what they call growing authoritarianism, which has damaged the atoll nation’s image as a tourist paradise.

Former colonial power Britain urged its citizens to remain vigilant and avoid large crowds ahead of the rally, with Maldivian police known to use pepper spray and batons.

Nasheed resigned as the Maldives’ leader in February 2012 after a mutiny by police and troops that followed weeks of protests over the arrest of the criminal court judge Mohamed on corruption allegations.

He denies any wrongdoing and says he was forced to quit following a mutiny by police and troops, accusing his successors of persecuting him.

Charges against Nasheed were dropped on February 16, but he was re-prosecuted on Sunday amid growing opposition to the Yameen government.

He has been refused bail and ordered to remain in police custody until the conclusion of a trial that his party says will not be fair.

The MDP said independent observers including a Western diplomat had been denied access to Thursday’s hearing.

“President Nasheed was effectively prevented from properly consulting with his legal team,” the MDP said in a statement shortly after the hearing ended.

“President Nasheed’s legal team raised concerns that they had not been given adequate time to prepare a reasonable defence against a charge as serious as terrorism.”

The party said defendants were normally given 10 days to prepare.

Authorities in the Maldives have also fast-tracked the cases against three other people facing identical charges.

Local media reports said Nasheed had objected to two judges on the three-member bench on the basis that they were already cited as prosecution witnesses in the case against him.

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