Vice president's arrest highlights fractious nature of young democracy in Maldives

An explosion last month aboard the presidential boat set the Maldives on course for its latest political shakeup, with the vice president arrested on suspicion of high treason for allegedly plotting to assassinate the country's leader.

Lawmakers are gathering support for impeaching Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, but his arrest was not unusual for the Indian Ocean archipelago, best known for its palm-fringed beaches but riven by political power struggles since becoming a democracy only seven years ago.

Here's a look at the latest on the Maldives' political battles:


A British colony until 1965, the Maldives endured decades of autocratic governance punctuated by coups until protests forced the country to hold its first elections in 2008. Its 350,000 people, relatively young and mostly Sunni Muslim, have embraced political activism. Protest rallies are common, political parties proliferate and election turnout is high.

The nation is a top tourist destination facing modern challenges including corruption, unemployment, drug addiction and Islamic radicalization.

People on the low-lying archipelago, meanwhile, are alarmed by the risk of rising seas inundating its lucrative resorts and farmlands as climate change triggers temperature changes worldwide. The country's first elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, drew global attention for donning scuba equipment and holding a Cabinet meeting on the ocean floor.


On Sept. 28, an explosion tore through a boat carrying President Yameen Abdul Gayoom and his wife from the airport on an island adjacent to the capital. Gayoom was unhurt, and his wife along with a government officer and body guard were injured.

Suspicion fell almost immediately onto the 33-year-old vice president, the protégé appointed in July after lawmakers loyal to Gayoom impeached Adeeb's predecessor and reduced the minimum presidential age to 30, from 35. The promotion put Adeeb next in line for the presidency. He was also given influence exceeding his elder colleagues, including heading the country's economic council, while keeping the important tourism portfolio.

Adeeb formerly had a reputation for enlisting Maldivian gangs to disrupt opposition demonstrations. And before investigators had even ruled out mechanical failure as the cause of the explosion, many were questioning why Adeeb had not gone to the airport to receive the president as planned and travel back to the capital with the president on the boat. Adeeb said he had been ill.

It wasn't clear that Adeeb was a real suspect, however, until he went to Beijing and police began raiding the offices and homes of Adeeb's associates. Gayoom's office also ceased reporting on Adeeb's meetings in China midway through the trip, fueling rumors that the president himself had lost trust in his deputy. Gayoom also fired the defense minister and police commissioner, both Adeeb allies.

Adeeb, insisting he is innocent, returned to the country Saturday and was immediately arrested at the airport.

The home minister said Adeeb would be charged with "high treason" — an offense that is not in the Maldives penal code but refers to acts against the state by high officials.


Adeeb's downfall — after such a rapid ascent — wasn't a big surprise among Maldivians who saw his ambition as a liability under the highly suspicious Gayoom.

It was also hardly novel.

Just three years after the reformist Nasheed became president, ending a 30-year autocracy under Gayoom's half-brother, Nasheed was forced to resign by widespread public protests after he ordered a judge be arrested. Nasheed then lost a widely disputed 2013 election won by Gayoom. Nasheed is now serving 13 years behind bars after being convicted in a highly criticized trial of committing terrorism by ordering the judge be fired.

Also jailed this year was Gayoom's former defense minister, Mohamed Nazim, serving an 11-year sentence for possessing a firearm.

Adeeb's arrest has sparked almost no public protest or complaint, which is somewhat unusual, especially given Adeeb's popularity among youths. On the day of his arrest, a small group of youth supporters rallied in the capital, but police quickly cracked down and temporarily detained 17 people.


The investigation is expected to develop over weeks if not months. A court has approved Adeeb's detention for 15 days of police questioning while police search the homes and businesses of his friends and family.

Lawmakers are collecting signatures to begin impeachment proceedings; nothing has been said about potential replacements.

Adeeb has said he will appeal his detention, but court rulings often favor the Gayoom family in a judicial system that has not been updated since the country became a democracy.

Gayoom, meanwhile, is expected tighten his grip on power, and has told his ministers he will be more active in daily governance.

This could hamper reforms aimed at making the judiciary and police more independent, which in turn could upset the public.

Tensions may rise between supporters of the two main parties — one being reformist and secular, and the other led by Gayoom and more traditional and nationalistic.


Francis reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka.