MALE, Maldives (AP) — The exiled former leader of the Maldives said he will mount a fresh challenge for the presidency this year after his conviction for abducting a judge was overturned by the country's Supreme Court. Government opponents in the archipelago nation's capital mounted a second straight night of street protests demanding the release of political prisoners whose convictions were also overturned.
President Yameen Abdul Gayoom had been set to run for re-election this year virtually unopposed, with all of his opponents either jailed or exiled.
But ex-President Mohammed Nasheed told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that the court's ruling means he will be eligible to challenge Yameen, who has rolled back many democratic reforms since coming to power five years ago.
"I can contest and I will contest and hopefully we will win it again," Nasheed said from Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo.
Nasheed was jailed in 2015 but received asylum in Britain later that year after traveling there on medical leave from prison. He has lived in exile ever since.
Nasheed also called for reforms in the country's security services, telling the AP that "a small element within the military and police want to prop up the dictatorship" of Yameen.
Thursday night's court ruling ordered the release and retrial of politicians opposed to Gayoom, saying their guilty verdicts were politically influenced. It was not immediately clear how retrials would affect the upcoming elections, but the opposition alliance declared that the ruling "effectively ends President Yameen's authoritarian rule."
Protesters late Friday and early Saturday converged on a prison in the capital of Male where the politicians are being held, demanding their immediate release, but police forced them to leave. They then moved to another location for a sit-in protest that was also broken up. Journalists were kept away from both events by police.
The demonstrations marked the second night of protests in the Maldives. After the court's ruling was made public, street celebrations by government opponents transformed into three hours of clashes with police, who used tear gas and their batons to break up the gatherings.
Maldives Attorney General Mohamed Anil said he raised government concerns about the ruling with the court's chief justice because the imprisoned politicians were convicted of offenses including terrorism, corruption, embezzlement and treason, said a government statement Friday.
"The attorney general stated that the administration has highlighted concerns over the consequences that may be presented in the immediate implementation of the court's ruling," the statement said.
The prosecutor general is examining cases to determine how best to comply with the ruling, the statement added.
The country's opposition alliance expressed fears that the non-implementation of the court order "could escalate to unrest and incite violence across the country." It called on the U.N., the European Union and neighboring countries to impress upon the government and security services to respect the Supreme Court ruling.
"The government of Maldives immediately resorted to using undue force against demonstrators celebrating the apex court's verdict. Opposition supporters were met with tear gas, arrests and direct police violence while calling on the government to implement the ruling," the opposition said in a statement.
Atul Keshap, the U.S. ambassador to the Maldives, welcomed the Supreme Court order. "I urge the government and security services to respect this ruling, which bolsters democracy and rule of law for all Maldivians," he wrote on Twitter.
Human rights group Amnesty International said the court decision should be a turning point for the nation.
The group's South Asia director, Biraj Patnaik, said the ruling must be implemented and the government's "witch-hunt against the political opposition and other critics" must end.
He said retrials of the opposition leaders must be conducted in line with international standards, and authorities must restore judicial independence.
Known for its luxury tourist resorts, the Maldives became a multiparty democracy 10 years ago after decades of autocratic rule by the current president's half brother, strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
But the nation lost much of its democratic gains after Yameen was elected in 2013. He has maintained a tight grip on power, controlling institutions such as the judiciary, police and the bureaucracy.
The court also reinstated 12 lawmakers who had been ousted for switching allegiance to the opposition. When those lawmakers return, Yameen's Progressive Party of the Maldives will lose its majority in the 85-member Parliament.
Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison after he was convicted of the abduction charge under the Maldives' anti-terror laws in a trial that was widely condemned by international rights groups.
Yameen's former deputy, Ahmed Adeeb, who had been jailed on accusations of plotting to kill the president, was also ordered released.
Adeeb was sentenced to 33 years in prison in 2016 on charges of corruption, possession of illegal firearms and planning to kill Yameen by triggering an explosion on his speedboat. However, FBI investigators said they found no evidence of a bomb blast.
Palipane reported from Colombo.
This version corrects that former President Mohammed Nasheed was sentenced in 2015, not 2013.