Clashes follow ruling that Maldives ex-president "not forced out"
MALE (Reuters) - Supporters of a former president of the Maldives scuffled with soldiers on Thursday in a protest against a report which said the leader's ousting this year did not constitute a coup.
The verdict of the Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry is a blow for former President Mohamed Nasheed, who hopes to return to power.
About 1,000 supporters took to the heavily-policed streets, hours after Nasheed urged his backers and the army to topple the new government of President Mohamed Waheed.
"If the commission report declares it was not a coup, then it is legitimate for the people to topple the government from the street," Nasheed said.
Demonstrators streamed towards the city's main square, shouting "We want elections now. Waheed resign." Some tried to shove through a line of soldiers outside the president's house. Police arrested 50 people.
"This government should go and the commission report is a total flop," said Mohamed Shafraz, 45, a builder who had come to the protest from Addu atoll, 370 km (220 miles) away.
Nasheed, who won global attention by holding a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat rising sea-levels pose to the low-lying archipelago, was the Maldives' first democratically elected president until his ousting in February.
His fall from power and the violence that followed dented the Indian Ocean nation's reputation as a laid-back luxury tourist paradise.
But the commission said the transfer of power followed the constitution. Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said the investigation was objective and credible.
"The change of president in the Republic of Maldives on February 7 2012 was legal and constitutional," the Commission of National Inquiry said in the report.
"The resignation of President Nasheed was voluntary and of his own free will. It was not caused by any illegal coercion or intimidation."
Nasheed said at the time of his removal that he had been forced to resign at gunpoint by mutinying police and soldiers.
His resignation sparked rowdy protests by his supporters, some of whom complained of heavy-handed policing. The report said police brutality should be further investigated.
The commission was appointed to look into the circumstances that led to the crisis.
Referring to Nasheed's accusations that his removal was a coup, the commission said: "Nothing in the Maldives changed in constitutional terms - indeed, the constitution was precisely followed as prescribed.
"Accordingly, there appears nothing contestable in constitutional terms under the generic notion of a 'coup d'etat' that is alleged to have occurred - quite to the contrary, in fact."
Waheed told a news conference the findings upheld his government's legitimacy.
"Nasheed was not under duress. He resigned voluntarily," Waheed said. "There is no chance to question the legitimacy of the current government now."
U.S. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, in a statement, commended the commission and called the investigation "thorough and inclusive".
"Now is the time for all parties to work together through dialogue to chart a positive way forward," she said.
Nasheed, speaking to thousands of followers in Male late on Wednesday, called on the public, the army and police to rise up. He demanded next year's presidential election be held earlier.
The nominee of Nasheed's party on the commission resigned from the panel on Wednesday after saying evidence likely to support the accusations of a coup was missing from the report.
The Maldives, for almost nine centuries a sultanate before it became a British protectorate, held its first fully democratic elections in 2008. Nasheed defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who after 30 years in power was then Asia's longest-serving leader and accused of running the country as a dictator.
(Writing by Matthias Williams Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)