May 1, 2015 / 9:45 AM / 2 years ago

Clashes in Maldives as protesters call for ex-president's release

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

MALE/GENEVA (Reuters) - Clashes broke out in the Maldives on Friday after thousands of supporters of the tropical archipelago's jailed former president took to the streets to call for his release.

Police used stun guns, tear gas and pepper spray to disperse crowds and stopped them from entering the high-security government zone in the capital Male, a police spokesman said.

A crowd of more than 10,000 people had gathered earlier on Friday, before marching through the streets chanting "Free Nasheed".

The protest was the largest since Nasheed was imprisoned in March for his role in ordering the arrest of a judge in a trial the United Nations has said was highly flawed and politically motivated.

"The regime's unprecedented efforts to intimidate (the opposition) have failed," said 27-year-old protester Yameen Rasheed.

"People have poured out in record numbers to demand President Nasheed's release."

The Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago of fewer than 400,000 people, is increasingly polarized between Nasheed's supporters and those backing President Abdulla Yameen.

The government's mission at the U.N. said in a statement on Thursday that Nasheed's party had joined forces with an Islamic religious party and paid for the travel of people to Male "with the explicit purpose of creating violence".

Yameen's government has repeatedly said Nasheed's trial was fair, denied any political motivation and warned foreign governments against intervention.

U.N. VISITS NASHEED

Mona Rishmawi, chief of the rule of law, equality and non-discrimination branch of the U.N. Human Rights Office, said on Friday she had visited Nasheed in detention in April.

"We kind of started to get signals that even the government recognizes that something went wrong with the process of the trial," she told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

Rishmawi said his trial had been politically motivated and the Maldives legal system was "totally incomplete", with makeshift rules and judges wielding "incredible discretionary powers".

"What we saw is that the rules have been really changed to lead to a certain result," she said.

She said when she met Nasheed in a "temporary location" he was thoughtful as well as cracking jokes.

"But I wouldn’t say he was relaxed. He knew he was facing 13 years in prison and he knew that his situation is really really difficult and he worried a lot about his safety."

She said she had warned the government to be "extremely careful" to ensure Nasheed's safety in the maximum security prison to which he was moved shortly after Rishmawi met him during her April 20-23 trip.

Additional reporting and writing by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Andrew Roche

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