Maldives opposition leader jailed for 12 years for role in protests

MALE (Reuters) - A Maldives court has sentenced an Islamist opposition leader to 12 years in jail, convicting him on terrorism charges related to a speech that protested the imprisonment of the islands’ first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed.

Best known as an exotic tourist destination, the Indian Ocean archipelago has been roiled by political unrest since Nasheed was ousted in disputed circumstances in 2012.

In March 2015, he was arrested, charged under the country’s terrorism laws and sentenced to 13 years for ordering the abduction of a judge, following a rapid trial that drew widespread international condemnation.

Under pressure from foreign governments, President Abdulla Yameen’s government released Nasheed last month to let him seek medical treatment in London.

Late on Tuesday, however, a court sentenced Sheikh Imran Abdulla, the leader of Islamist Adhaalath Party, to 12 years for comments he made in an anti-government speech during a mass protest against Nasheed’s arrest on May Day last year.

The government said Imran was charged for urging protesters “to confront police”, something the politician’s lawyer denied.

“We believe the judgment is grossly unfair because he has not called for violence in his speech”, Imran’s lawyer Husnu Suood told Reuters.

“He clearly asked the participants at the rally to refrain from violence and had taken all steps to prevent violence”.

Mark Toner, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, called the judicial process that led to the sentencing “deeply flawed”.

“We renew our call for the Maldivian government to end politically motivated trials and to take steps to restore confidence and a commitment to democracy and human rights including freedom of expression and the rule of law and judicial independence”, Toner told a regular news briefing in Washington.

Clashes between protesters and police broke out at the 2015 May Day demonstration in the capital, Male, and hundreds of protesters were arrested.

“No country in the world would condone such a call for violence”, Abbas Adil Riza, the deputy high commissioner for Maldives in Colombo told Reuters.

The sentencing of the Islamist politician comes days after President Yameen called on the opposition parties to end a standoff with his own party amid rising international pressure.

Adhaalath Party Spokesman Ali Zahir said the sentencing demonstrated the absence of good faith from the government’s side in the inter party talks.

Since his release, Nasheed has called for sanctions against Yameen and his allies for detaining political prisoners, mainly opposition leaders.

Reporting by Daniel Bosley in Male; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, G Crosse