New Delhi has reacted strongly to the Maldives government’s delay in releasing nine opposition leaders including former President Mohamed Nasheed—who lives in self-exile in London—as per the island nation’s Supreme Court orders. The ruling would allow them to contest the elections which are likely in October. “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,” the Indian ministry of external affairs declared Friday. “We are closely monitoring the evolving situation,” it warned.
In a surprise ruling Thursday, the Maldives Supreme Court ordered the immediate release and fresh trials of the opposition leaders, saying their earlier trials and convictions in 2015 had violated the constitution and international law, and that prosecutors and judges were unduly influenced “to conduct politically motivated investigations” against them. The UN, the US, the UK and the EU too urged the government, led by Yameen Abdul Gayoom, to respect the ruling. Gayoom, however, has sought time to review and challenge the ruling, sparking major opposition protests.
India, which had been warily watching Gayoom’s overtures to Beijing and Riyadh, had raised strong reservations after Gayoom signed an FTA with China, while delaying one with India. The growing Chinese influence in the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, nearly a 1,000 km southeast of Sri Lanka, raises serious strategic issues for New Delhi and reinforces fears overs China’s ‘String of Pearls’ policy to check India’s influence in the Indian Ocean region.
Last month, Gayoom sent his foreign minister as a special representative to Delhi to “reaffirm his Government’s India First policy.” This olive branch prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to accept the invitation to visit the Maldives—the only South Asian country he has not visited so far—“at a suitable time”. With the latest developments, that visit is unlikely to be anytime soon.