Mass arrests in Maldives as activists defy emergency

COLOMBO: Maldivian authorities arrested more than 140 activists who defied a ban on rallies and demonstrated against a state of emergency imposed by President Abdulla Yameen, the opposition said Saturday.

Thousands of supporters poured into the streets of the capital island Male on Friday night and continued their protest rally till early Saturday, the joint opposition said in a statement issued in Colombo.

"Ignoring President Yameen's edicts banning protests, and braving police and army pepper spray and tear gas, the protests swelled to thousands strong by the early hours of Saturday morning," the statement said.

It said 141 pro-democracy supporters were arrested following what it called the biggest anti-Yameen protest to rock the Maldives since May Day 2015 when similar mass arrests were carried out.

Maldivian police confirmed the latest arrests and said 139 people, including 26 women, remained in custody Saturday morning. Two people had been released overnight.

Police also confirmed that they used pepper spray and teargas to disperse the crowds who marched through the streets despite the state of emergency imposed by Yameen last month.

The opposition said three members of parliament were among those arrested on Friday.

Yameen is facing increasing opposition both within and outside his tiny Indian Ocean archipelago since coming to power in November 2013 following a controversial run-off election against former president Mohamed Nasheed.

Last month, Yameen extended a draconian state of emergency by another month, ignoring a growing chorus of international concern and calls for democracy to be restored in the honeymoon islands.

Yameen declared the emergency earlier in February, curtailing the powers of the judiciary and the legislature, after the country's Supreme Court ruled to quash criminal convictions against high profile opposition politicians.

The Maldives' highest court has since revoked its order after two top judges were arrested, seemingly giving Yameen the upper hand in a bitter power struggle.

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein has described the state of emergency as "an all-out assault on democracy" and urged Yameen to return the country to democracy and rule of law.

The ongoing unrest has dented the Maldives' image as a popular holiday destination. — AFP