The criminal court has declined a request by state prosecutors to detain Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim until the end of his trial on charges of bribery and attempting to influence voting and official conduct.
The first hearing of the trial on Thursday was closed to the media and members of the public for undisclosed reasons.
According to his lawyers, Gasim pleaded not guilty to all three counts.
Under the new penal code, the bribery charge carries a maximum penalty of eight years in prison and the separate charges of influencing official conduct and influencing voters carry a maximum jail sentence of four years each.
The MP for the Maamigili constituency will lose his seat if he is found guilty. According to the constitution, a sitting MP will be disqualified if he is jailed for more than one year.
The Prosecutor General’s office filed Gasim’s case at court on Tuesday. The business tycoon was arrested last week and held in remand detention for six days until the high court ordered his release on Wednesday.
The police said he may tamper with evidence if he remained free and contended that he poses a danger to society. But defence counsel for Gasim stressed that the police were unable to present any evidence to support the claims.
The trials of Gasim and JP MP Abdulla Riyaz comes amidst an intensified crackdown after a newly formed opposition alliance sought to challenge President Abdulla Yameen’s parliamentary majority with a failed bid to impeach the speaker.
The government, however, has insisted that the police and courts are independent, dismissing allegations of harassing and intimidating opposition leaders.
The police previously said Gasim is suspected of attempting to bribe lawmakers to influence no-confidence motions against the speaker and the deputy speaker. He was also accused of “trying to exert influence over the security forces and conducting activities that encourage the overthrow of the lawful government of the Maldives.”
Gasim was first interrogated over remarks he made during a speech before the March 27 no-confidence vote. The JP leader had declared that the allied parties would grant tickets for the 2019 parliamentary elections to MPs who vote in favour.
He had also offered to help with the re-election campaigns. Gasim later said his remarks were directed at JP MPs who have switched to the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives, maintaining that he was fulfilling his responsibility after the party issued a three-line whip to vote in favour of the no-confidence motion.
Gasim’s arrest meanwhile prompted the EU and the embassies of Canada, Norway, Switzerland and the US to urge the government to respect fundamental freedoms and to allow opposition politicians “to conduct their activities without fear of intimidation or incarceration”.
The tax authority has also frozen the accounts of Gasim’s Villa Shipping and Trading Company.
If he is convicted, Gasim will join the ranks of high-profile politicians and state officials jailed since the political crisis triggered by the arrest of former President Mohamed Nasheed in early 2015, which now include Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla, Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof, former Defence Ministers Mohamed Nazim and Tholhath Ibrahim, former ruling party MP Ahmed Nazim, former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, former Colonel Ahmed Fayaz, former Prosecutor General Muhthaz Muhsin, and Magistrate Ahmed Nihan.