Maldives opposition seeks to bar president from leaving country

The Maldives‘ opposition asked police to bar President Abdulla Yameen from leaving the country hours after he announced plans to step down in the face of a likely defeat in a court case challenging his election loss.

Yameen, who presided over a five-year crackdown targeting opposition, media and rights activists, “must not be allowed to leave the country” without facing justice over allegations of corruption, opposition lawyer Hassan Latheef told reporters in the capital, Male, late on Wednesday.

“We are receiving credible reports Yameen may leave the country at any minute,” the lawyer said outside the police headquarters, urging police to “stop Yameen’s departure given ongoing investigations into allegations of corruption”.

The police could not be reached for comment immediately.

Ibrahim Muaz Ali, spokesperson for Yameen, dismissed the opposition’s claim, saying the president “will never flee and was ready to cooperate with any investigation”, according to newspaper Mihaaru.

Yameen, 59, lost the September 23 election by a margin of 16 percent to opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in an outcome hailed as a victory for democracy in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

A stunned Yameen conceded defeat a day after the election, saying he accepted the “people’s verdict”. Days later, at a ruling party conference, he was visibly distraught as he asked voters repeatedly: “What were you thinking? How did you assess me?”

The next week, he was angry as he urged supporters across the country to protest against the election outcome. 

WATCH: Abdulla Yameen concedes defeat in Maldives presidential election (1:29)

The call came despite announcements from a wide range of countries congratulating Solih on the result, including the US, India, and the UK, as well as from Yameen’s allies, China and Saudi Arabia, who financed his expansive infrastructure drive over the past five years.

‘Disappearing ink and magic carpets’

Then last week, Yameen filed a court challenge at the Supreme Court, alleging election commission officials used “disappearing ink”, pen rings, and fraudulent ballot papers to rig the vote in his opponent’s favour.

As evidence, the president only offered testimony from three “secret” witnesses.

The opposition dismissed the complaint as “pure conspiracy”, with one lawyer saying “the only thing missing from the case are magic carpets”.

Nevertheless, the court accepted the complaint, prompting threats of action by the US and stirring fears of further chaos in the crisis-hit island nation.

The Supreme Court had consistently ruled in favour of Yameen prior to the election. The only time it defied the president – when it issued a ruling in February ordering the release of jailed opposition leaders – Yameen declared a state of emergency and sent in the army to arrest the chief justice and another senior judge. 

His party also successfully lobbied the same court in 2013 to annul the results of a first round of polling in which he came second. Yameen went on to win that election with a narrow margin of 6,000 votes.

After assuming power, he crushed dissent by locking up and forcing into exile nearly all of his political rivals, banning protests, stripping disloyal politicians of their parliamentary seats, and shuttering independent and critical media outlets.

In a final address on Wednesday, Abdulla Yameen said he has ‘no regrets’ about any of his actions [Maldives presidency handout]

He also pulled the Maldives out of the Commonwealth in 2016 when the inter-governmental body threatened to take action against him over alleged rights abuses.

Critics also accuse him of state capture, noting allegations of corruption against him were never investigated.

The most serious of the claims against Yameen include accusations he oversaw the country’s biggest-ever corruption scandal, in which at least $79m from tourism revenues was diverted to private accounts and cashed out, according to an audit report and an Al Jazeera investigation in 2016.

The opposition says Yameen received at least $1m of the embezzled money at his private account at the Maldives Islamic Bank. The anti-corruption watchdog confirmed that, but has shelved the probe saying it could not reach the person who deposited the cash into the president’s account.

Most recently, an anti-money laundering body in the Maldives informed the police that Yameen received 22 million Maldivian rufiyaa ($1.5m) in hard currency days ahead of the election.

Latheef, the opposition lawyer, referred to both cases in requesting the police order to prevent Yameen from leaving the country.

The Maldives’ constitution authorises the police to investigate alleged criminal offences by a sitting president.

No regrets  

Yameen has denied all accusations against him.

In a televised speech on Wednesday, he maintained his “sincerity” and said he had “no regrets” about his actions as he prepared to step down.

“What I found most difficult, or what I was incapable of, was learning about the people. In the past five years, I could not comprehend why and how people’s ideologies changed,” he said.

His “final address” came a day after the Supreme Court rejected testimony from the secret witnesses, suggesting the bench will rule against him. The court has not said when it would deliver a verdict.

The police and army have previously pledged to uphold the election result. 

The opposition is also waiting on a Supreme Court verdict on eight of the 12 politicians who were removed from the parliament by Yameen. An opposition legislator has previously said they plan to impeach Yameen if they regain control of the parliament, a move that will make the president vulnerable to arrest.  

Mariya Ahmed Didi, spokesperson for president-elect Solih, said the Maldives cannot move “ahead without addressing these” allegations, and pledged a fair investigation.  

“This is not about revenge,” she said. “The last thing we want to see is politicisation of the process.”

Yameen’s court complaint stirred fears of further unrest in the Maldives [File: Ashwa Faheem/Reuters]

Calls for the president and his associates to face justice are growing.

Hundreds of people protested outside the Supreme Court calling for Yameen’s arrest earlier this week, while rights groups have warned the opposition against granting immunity for the president and officials of his administration during the transfer of power.

“It would be unacceptable if anyone in the outgoing administration negotiates their wat out of facing the consequences of crimes commited in office,” said Mariyam Shiuna, executive director of anti-corruption group Transparency Maldives.

The transfer of power must “be characterised by transparency and accountability, not by impunity and back-room deal making”, she said. 

Officials from the president’s party did not respond to calls for comment. 

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