New Delhi: India is keeping a watchful eye on the political crisis in the Maldives triggered after its Supreme Court last week ordered the release of some opposition leaders, including former president Mohammed Nasheed, after overturning their “terrorism" convictions.

Nasheed is in exile in the UK but would be arrested if he came back.

The crisis is seen as the biggest threat to President Abdulla Yameen’s control over the Maldives since he took power in 2013, defeating Nasheed.

Yameen is the half brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who governed the Maldives for three decades till he lost an election to Nasheed in 2008. Yameen and Gayoom are now seen on opposite sides with the latter aligned with the opposition. The Maldives, an Indian Ocean island chain of around 400,000 people, is known to the outside world mainly as a tropical tourist resort destination.

According to news reports from Male, security forces in the Indian Ocean atoll nation had sealed off the country’s parliament late on Sunday and arrested two opposition legislators as President Yameen reportedly delayed freeing the jailed politicians. Hundreds of protesters took taken to the streets over the weekend to demand compliance with the court order.

This was despite an appeal by countries like India and the US, besides the European Union and the United Nations, urging Yameen’s government to follow the court ruling. The Maldives president is accused of corruption and rights abuses but he has denied all accusations.

India, one of the closest neighbours of Maldives, is said to be watching the situation with “a close eye" though the foreign ministry in New Delhi has not offered any comments other than a statement it put out on Friday urging the Male government to abide by the court order.

“In the spirit of democracy and rule of law, it is imperative for all organs of the Government of Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the apex court. We also hope that the safety and security of the Indian expatriates in Maldives will be ensured by the Maldivian authorities under all circumstances," the Indian statement said. “As a close and friendly neighbour, India wishes to see a stable, peaceful and prosperous Maldives," it added.

India was one of the first countries that Yameen visited after winning elections in 2013. In 2014, Yameen was one of the leaders India invited for the swearing in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But Modi called off a visit to Maldives in 2015 during a tour of Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius following reports of a crackdown by Yameen on the opposition. 

In recent years, Yameen has seemingly aligned the Maldives closer to China—signing up for China’s ambitious Maritime Silk Route project aiming to connect Asia and Africa through the Indian Ocean with a series of ports and other infrastructure projects to promote trade. In December, the Maldives signed a trade pact with China raising eyebrows in India. Yameen later sent his foreign minister Mohamed Asim to New Delhi to clear the air and reset ties.

According to a Reuters news report on Sunday, soldiers in riot gear surrounded the parliament building in Male soon after the opposition urged the parliament to remove the island nation’s attorney general and its chief prosecutor. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the parliamentary leader of the opposition, accused both of breaking the law by failing to act on the Supreme Court verdict.

The Supreme Court verdict gives the opposition a majority in the 85-member parliament as it reinstates 12 MPs who were stripped of their seats last year. But another news report by the Al Jazeera news network said two of the 12 were arrested at the airport on Sunday, shortly after they returned to the Maldives after months in exile.

The motion to remove attorney general Mohamed Anil came hours after he accused the Supreme Court of trying to impeach the president. “I have informed all law enforcement agencies they must not obey such an illegal order," he said in a televised appearance flanked by the chiefs of the army and the police, the Al Jazeera report said.

Anil’s statements were “tantamount to a coup", former president Nasheed said in a post on Twitter.

Following the ruling, speaker Abdulla Maseeh, a Yameen ally, called off the opening of the parliament, scheduled for 5 February. In a text message to legislators, he cited unspecified “security concerns" for the cancellation.

Yameen, on his part, has stopped short of saying he will not obey the court order to free his opponents. “We’ve started dialogue with the Supreme Court. We’ve sat and started talking about difficulties or concerns the state has," he said. “We’re working on making sure we can respect the court order in a way that doesn’t cause any difficulties to the people."

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