New Maldives leader expands cabinet

AP News
Posted: Feb 12, 2012 11:01 AM
New Maldives leader expands cabinet

The Maldives' new president expanded his Cabinet on Sunday to include members of the former autocratic ruler's party and Islamic conservatives are also to be appointed ministers in coming days.

Conservatives have been demanding the introduction of strict Islamic laws in the Indian Ocean nation that relies on high-end tourism.

Demonstrations over the past year calling for more religiously conservative policies as well as widespread protests over soaring prices had put pressure on the former leader, Mohamed Nasheed. He resigned last week after his order to arrest a senior judge sparked continuous protests. He later said he had been ousted in a coup, leading to a political crisis.

New President Mohammed Waheed Hassan said he was forming a coalition government to help restore stability in the Muslim country ahead of presidential elections due next year. Six members from four political parties were sworn in Sunday as ministers.

They include the Progressive Party of the Maldives headed by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the former autocratic leader who ruled for 30 years until Nasheed defeated him in the country's first multiparty election in 2008.

Adhaalat, or Justice Party, which wants to see the introduction of Shariah law, and several other moderate parties will also receive ministerial positions, according to presidential spokesman Masood Imad.

Some slots in the Cabinet were being kept open in case Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party changed its mind about joining the coalition government, he said.

The constitution prohibits any religion other than Islam being practiced or preached in the Maldives and specifies that it be governed according to Islamic principles. But authorities have generally been flexible mainly to preserve the country's tourism industry.

However, Islamic activists led by Adhaalat have protested against the former government's ties with Israel and demanded alcohol not be sold outside resorts. The party also led a protest in December against United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay after she asked the Maldives to stop flogging women found to have had sex outside marriage.

Gayoom, since losing power, has kept away from active politics. Although it is unclear whether he will return to public life, he is likely to influence government policies.

In a speech after the swearing-in ceremony, Hassan said his government would carry forward the programs initiated by the previous government. He did not specify the programs.

"That is what we have to do to recover from the problems we've had in the last couple of weeks," Hassan said.

His government would work to create a conducive environment in which free and fair elections could be held, Hassan said.

New ministers for health, education, economic development, transport, youth affairs and sports and tourism took the oath of office in a short ceremony at the president's office in the capital, Male.

A new Attorney General for the island nation was also sworn in. Hassan had appointed ministers for defense and home affairs earlier in the week.

The Maldives has been rocked by political turmoil since Nasheed resigned Tuesday and was replaced by Hassan, who had been his vice president. Nasheed claims he was ousted in a coup, a charge the new president denies.

A senior U.S. diplomat who met with Maldivian leaders on Saturday said the country wasn't ready for early elections as a way out of its political crisis.

Political unrest, simmering for the last few months, escalated after a senior judge was arrested by the government on charges of political bias. Nasheed resigned when police and army soldiers joined the protests against his rule.

The new government insists Nasheed stepped down voluntarily, and although police have issued an arrest warrant against the former leader, there has been no move to arrest Nasheed.

Tourism is the main industry in the Maldives, a chain of nearly 1,200 islands off southern India blessed with sandy beaches and coral. Most resorts are located near the beaches and remained mostly untouched by the protests in Male and the southernmost atoll, Addu.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects to say Justice Party not in Cabinet yet but will be appointed later; changes headlines; adds byline.)