February 12, 2012 / 10:46 PM / 6 years ago

Commonwealth questions leadership change in Maldives

MALE (Reuters) - The Commonwealth is sending a team to the Maldives to investigate why the first democratically elected president of the Indian Ocean nation has suddenly been replaced, the 54-nation group said Sunday.

Ex-president Mohamed Nasheed says he was ousted in a coup carried out Tuesday in a mutiny by police and military officers on the archipelago, best known as a get-away-from-it-all beach holiday destination.

Late Sunday, Nasheed supporters gathered outside the Peoples’ Majlis, or parliament threw wads of the islands’ rufiyya currency at police - an apparent reference to unsubstantiated rumours the security forces were paid to rebel.

Riot police with shields and batons cordoned off the area and engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with around 150 demonstrators, arresting a few but striking none.

New President Mohamed Waheed Hussain Manik says his move up from vice president followed constitutional procedures after Nasheed resigned voluntarily.

Diplomats from the United States, Britain, India, United Nations and Commonwealth are in the Maldives pressing for an independent inquiry after Nasheed quit Tuesday and rallied supporters the following day for protests that ended in violence.

Aside from Sunday’s non-violent protest, tempers appeared to have cooled in Male, the capital of the 1,200-island nation.

The Commonwealth Sunday held urgent talks among its nine-nation Ministerial Action Group, which resolved to send “a ministerial mission which will visit Maldives urgently to ascertain the facts surrounding the transfer of power, and to promote adherence to Commonwealth values and principles,” according to a statement issued in London.

Three or four foreign ministers should visit this month, and possibly as early as next weekend, Surujrattan Rambachan, the foreign affairs minister of Trinidad and Tobago, told Reuters.

“We have to collect all the facts relevant to the situation by speaking to as many people as possible and ensuring that the position of the people of the Maldives is well-understood,” he said by telephone. The group will meet again in London next week, he said.

The group did not discuss any possible sanctions against the Maldives, although it has the authority to sanction to suspend and even expel Commonwealth members.

OLD GUARD CABINET

New President Waheed named ministers Sunday who are almost all veterans of the government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years until Nasheed beat him in a 2008 election.

Waheed left a handful of positions open, possibly to entice other parties to join his proposed national unity government.

So far, Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has refused to recognize the new government. Friday, Nasheed threatened mass street protests unless his successor stepped aside and handed power to the parliament speaker until new elections are held in two months.

Waheed has called for a national unity government, and on Saturday said he was open to an independent probe into the circumstances around Nasheed’s exit. He has ruled out presidential elections before they are due in October 2013.

Notable among Waheed’s appointments Sunday was Aishath Azima Shakooru, who returns as attorney general, a position she held in the Gayoom administration. She has never lost a case.

Shakooru defended former Gayoom allies in cases brought by Nasheed’s government and involving multi-million dollar corruption allegations.

She also defended Chief Criminal Court Justice Adbulla Mohamed, whose arrest by the military at Nasheed’s order on January 16 set off three weeks of opposition-led protests that culminated in the security forces’ mutiny.

Nasheed said the chief justice, like 200 other criminal court judges, had been illegally sworn in for a life term and was illegally blocking the graft charges from being heard.

The judge, released from military detention, issued an arrest warrant against Nasheed, who remains free. The details of the arrest warrant remain unclear.

Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London; Editing by Ron Popeski/Ruth Pitchford

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