MALE (Reuters) - The Maldives appointed a new chief justice on Thursday, two weeks after a court convicted his predecessor as well as former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of obstruction of justice and jailed them for 19 months.
The government denies accusations that the trials were part of a plan by President Abdulla Yameen to tighten his grip ahead of elections in September where he seeks a second five-year term against an opposition yet to decide on a single candidate.
Justice Abdue Ghanee Mohamed took oaths of office as a new Supreme Court justice replacing Ali Hameed, who was also removed from his positions last week after the High Court upheld lower court convictions against Hameed for obstruction of justice.
Supreme Court Justice Ahmed Abdulla Didi took his oath of office, replacing Abdulla Saeed who was sacked last week after the Indian Ocean archipelago’s high court rejected appeals by Saeed against his conviction.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego García-Sayán, expressed disquiet at the Supreme Court’s decision not to accept the various appeals.
García-Sayán also said he was concerned by reports of interference and serious irregularities in the judicial procedures that led to the convictions.
“The appointment of two new justices before the end of the removal procedure of Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Justice Ali Hameed cast serious doubts on their status, and, consequently, on the status of two top judges appointed by the parliament on 27 June,” García-Sayán said in a statement.
The country of 400,000 people is popular with tourists but has suffered political unrest since its first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Nasheed, was forced to quit amid a police mutiny in 2012.
Nasheed was convicted of terrorism charges in 2015 and sentenced to 13 years after a trial criticized as unfair. But he was allowed to go on medical leave to Britain, where he was granted political asylum.
The Indian Ocean island chain has faced upheaval since February when Yameen, half brother of Gayoom, imposed a 45-day state of emergency to annul a Supreme Court ruling that quashed the convictions of nine opposition leaders including Nasheed.
During the emergency, authorities arrested the three men Gayoom, Saeed, Hameed as well as a Supreme Court administrator on charges of trying to overthrow the government. They still face those charges.
The opposition has accused Yameen’s government of jailing leaders who could challenge his re-election bid. The government denies this.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Nick Macfie