March 14, 2015 / 1:38 AM / 3 years ago

U.S., India concerned over 13-year jail sentence for Maldives' ex-president Nasheed

Mohamed Nasheed gestures at a political march around the island in Male, October 18, 2013. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

MALE/COLOMBO (Reuters) - The United States, India and rights groups said on Saturday they were troubled by the trial of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison after being found guilty of terrorism for ordering the arrest of a judge.

The verdict on Friday was the latest chapter in three turbulent years in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected leader, was ousted in disputed circumstances, narrowly defeated in a controversial election and then arrested last month under new charges of terrorism.

“The prosecution’s evidence proved beyond reasonable doubt that Nasheed ordered the chief judge’s arrest or forceful abduction and detention on Girifushi island,” Judge Abdulla Didi said in the court in the capital, Male.

The three-judge bench’s verdict was unanimous, and the office of President Abdulla Yameen, who had denied that the prosecution was political, confirmed the jail sentence.

Nasheed’s election in 2008 ended the autocratic 30-year rule of Yameen’s half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

The announcement last month that Nasheed had been arrested on terrorism charges brought thousands onto the streets of Male, leading to clashes with security forces.

The U.S. embassy in nearby Sri Lanka said it was “particularly troubled” by reports that the trial was not in line with Maldivian law and the country’s international obligations. This included the denial of legal representation to Nasheed and concerns about the independence of the judges.

“We call on the government of Maldives to take steps to restore confidence in its commitment to democracy and the rule of law, including judicial independence, and to ensure fundamental rights are respected...,” it said in a statement.

Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External affairs, said in a message on Twitter: “India deeply concerned at developments in Maldives, monitoring the situation closely.”

Human rights group Amnesty International said the conviction was a deeply flawed, politically motivated travesty of justice.

PROTESTERS DISPERSE

Tension had been rising again as the verdict approached and hundreds of Nasheed’s supporters, some waving “Free Nasheed” posters, had gathered outside the court on Friday night. Police said they had briefly detained 13 men.

A Reuters witness said the crowd dispersed after the sentencing.

In a statement in court, Nasheed urged his supporters to come out onto the streets in protest, according to a text released by his office after his sentencing.

“I appeal to all of you today to stay courageous and strong, to confront the dictatorial power of this regime, to change this government and work towards forming a government that would pave the way for the people’s development and prosperity,” he said.

The arrest of the judge in 2012 triggered a crisis in which Nasheed has said he was forced to resign at gunpoint. His allies say he was ousted in a coup.

Yameen became president in November 2013 in an election whose first-round result was canceled when early results put Nasheed ahead. When the second round was held, Nasheed lost by a narrow margin and conceded defeat.

The prosecutor-general last month withdrew criminal charges that had been brought against Nasheed over the judge’s arrest, only to issue an arrest warrant shortly afterwards on new charges of terrorism relating to the same incident, bringing thousands out onto the streets in protest.

The Maldives is a string of more than 1,100 coral islands popular as a holiday paradise.

The political turmoil comes amid worry about increasing Islamist militancy in the country.

additional reporting and writing by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Alison Williams, Kevin Liffey, Robert Birsel, Kim Coghill

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