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04 December 2023

New Maldives leader denies 'coup' charges


The new president of the Maldives, Mohamed Waheed, denied seizing power Wednesday, even as his predecessor accused him of involvement in a coup plot and called on him to resign.

Waheed, the former vice president, was sworn in Tuesday hours after the dramatic resignation of Mohamed Nasheed following weeks of anti-government protests and a police mutiny on the Indian Ocean holiday islands.

Speaking at his first press conference since taking office, Waheed rejected suggestions that Nasheed had been overthrown in a takeover orchestrated by opposition leaders and the security forces.

"It is wrong to describe the events as a coup. We did not know this was going to happen. I was unprepared," he said.   

However, in an exclusive interview with AFP, Nasheed insisted that he had been forced into resigning by a group of armed rebel police and army officers who had threatened a bloodbath if he refused.

"They told me if I didn't resign they would resort to use arms," Nasheed told AFP by telephone from a family property in the capital Male.

He added that he feared Waheed "was in on it" and had seized the chance to take over.

"I am afraid he's always entertained an idea to become the president. He's never been able to do that. When the opportunity was available to him, he took it," he said.

The army has denied playing any coercive role in the former president's decision to leave office.

In a speech at a meeting later Wednesday with senior leaders of his Maldivian Democratic Party, Nasheed formally called on Waheed "to step down" and urged the judiciary to bring the "coup" plotters to justice.

Thousands of supporters greeted Nasheed as he arrived at the meeting, chanting his nickname "Long Live Anni!". They then rallied in an area outside the state broadcasting headquarters, guarded by police in riot gear.

In his press conference, Waheed said he would appoint a "truly multi-party cabinet" in the next few days, and claimed he was in talks with all groups including the MDP.

The weeks of protests that led to Nasheed's downfall had erupted after he ordered the army to arrest Criminal Court Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed on charges of misconduct and favouring opposition figures.

Opposition parties accused him of trampling over the constitution, and the demonstrations were swelled by religious conservatives who regarded his regime as un-Islamic.

Waheed said Wednesday that Islamic parties "will be represented" in his new cabinet, adding that they are "part of our society and can't be ignored".

Islam is the official religion of the Maldives and open practice of any other religion is forbidden and liable to prosecution.

Tuesday's events marked a spectacular fall for Nasheed.

The 44-year-old rose to power from grassroots opposition to the 30-year autocratic regime of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who imprisoned him on several occasions.

His clear victory over Gayoom in the country's first free elections in 2008 was hailed as heralding a new era of democracy and progressive politics.

He used his mandate to build a reputation internationally as a committed campaigner against climate change and once held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the dangers of rising sea levels.

But economic problems and high inflation damaged his popular standing, while Islamic activists attacked him on religious issues, including flights arriving with Israeli tourists and "improper" social conduct on island resorts.

Police said a mob had attacked the Maldives national museum on Tuesday and smashed a large number of ancient Buddhist statues.

The Maldives, a nation of almost 1,200 islands on the equator, is dependent on tourism and is famous for its upmarket holiday resorts and hotels that cater to honeymooning couples and high-end travellers.

European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton expressed "deep concern" at the developments in the country, while Amnesty International urged the new regime not to persecute members of Nasheed's administration.