Political opponents of the Maldives government clashed with police on the streets of the capital early Friday after the Supreme Court ordered the release of imprisoned politicians, including an ex-president living in exile in Britain.
Hundreds of people celebrated in Male by waving the country's flag after the court overturned verdicts against ex-President Mohamed Nasheed and an ex-vice president jailed after trials that were internationally condemned. The court said in its ruling late Thursday the guilty verdicts had been influenced by the government.
Police dispersed the crowds from the streets using pepper spray and batons. Rocks were thrown at police and at least one injured officer was seen being carried to a hospital.
The ruling could allow Nasheed, the archipelago state’s first democratically elected president, to challenge President Yameen Abdul Gayoom when he seeks re-election later this year.
An Indian Ocean nation 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 Gayoom was elected in 2013 election. He has maintained a tight grip on power, controlling institutions like the judiciary, police and the bureaucracy.
The court ruling also reinstated 12 lawmakers who had lost their positions for switching allegiance to the Opposition. Gayoom's Progressive Party of the Maldives will lose a majority in the 85-member Parliament when the ousted lawmakers return.
The government said in a statement that it is 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 Gayoom'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.
Gayoom had been set to run for re-election virtually unopposed with all of his opponents either jailed or exiled.
The prison sentence currently disqualifies Nasheed as a candidate. In a statement 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.
Also named for release was Gayoom's former deputy Ahmed Adeeb, who had been jailed on accusations of plotting to kill Gayoom.
Adeeb in 2016 was sentenced to 33 years in prison for alleged corruption, possession of illegal firearms and planning to kill Gayoom by triggering a blast on his speedboat even though FBI investigators said they found no evidence of a bomb blast.
This article has been published in an arrangement with the Associated Press.