GENEVAGENEVA (Reuters) - Maldives will seek help from other countries to investigate judges suspected of taking bribes and "hijacking" the Supreme Court to drag the island nation into political crisis, a senior Maldives diplomat told Reuters in an interview.
The tiny Indian Ocean archipelago, best known for its luxury hotels and dive resorts, imposed a 15-day state of emergency on Feb. 5 to annul a ruling from the court ordering the release of nine leading opposition figures.
"That was a direct attempt by the Supreme Court to halt the whole country and go into a deadlock," said Ahmed Shiaan, Maldives ambassador to the European Union.
He showed Reuters a Maldives police statement which said a bag containing $215,000 and 150,000 rufiyaa ($9,700) belonging to one Supreme Court judge had been found, and that $2.4 million had been separately wired to the judge by a private firm.
Shiaan said that judge, and a second judge on the Supreme Court, had been arrested on suspicion of accepting bribes from former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to deliver certain verdicts in his favor. Gayoom himself has been arrested over allegations that he solicited bribes to topple the government.
"Together, it amounted to collusion to use the Supreme Court to overthrow a democratically elected and constitutional government," Shiaan said in the interview.
Gayoom's lawyer Maumoon Hameed said he was detained under the state of emergency without any evidence or due process, which was unacceptable.
"If this is such a huge investigation and Gayoom is a dangerous person of interest why have they not questioned him in over 140 hours?"
Lawyers for the two judges said their clients also denied all the charges. One said his client had been refused permission to deny the charges.
CALL FOR FOREIGN ASSISTANCE
"So far what we know is that they (the two judges) have made at least 12 visits in the past few months to various countries, including India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Netherlands and UK. And they have bought or acquired very expensive items (or) properties," Shiaan said.
"So the investigation is not limited to Maldives. Hence, we would need assistance from other countries for the investigation."
Property purchases abroad needed to be disclosed and $2.4 million is beyond the reach of a judge's salary, Shiaan said.
He said the two judges had persuaded the other three Supreme Court justices to pass rulings "at midnight, out of the blue and without any new evidence", to free political prisoners and order the retrial of ex-president Mohamed Nasheed, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2015.
Shiaan said they also tried to remove the attorney-general, prosecutor-general, police commissioner and President Abdulla Yameen, who declared the emergency to reverse the court's actions.
"I think when that happened the other three (judges) basically came out and said how everything was hijacked and how this actually unfolded," Shiaan said.
Opposition legislators in the past have complained of authorities targeting them with false allegations. Yameen has denied such accusations. Most of the opposition leaders likely to challenge Yameen in a presidential vote later this year are facing jail sentences. Some have urged India to intervene.
The United Nations, United States, Britain and India have called for the judges to be freed, while independent experts reporting to the U.N. Human Rights Council have said the rule of law in the Maldives is "under siege".
The Maldives wants to hold "all party" talks and has asked the United Nations to facilitate them, Shiaan said.
Yameen is expected to run for re-election later this year, but neither Gayoom nor Nasheed, who was granted asylum in Britain in 2016, will be eligible to run, Shiaan said.
($1 = 15.4200 rufiyaa)
(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Mohamed Junayd in Male and Shihar Aneez in Colombo)