The high court has ordered the police to release Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim from custody after overturning an arrest warrant issued by the criminal court.
The appellate court ruled on Wednesday afternoon that his arrest was illegal as it violated the parliamentary privileges law, which requires the Prosecutor General to seek a warrant if a sitting MP is to be detained for a criminal investigation.
Gasim told reporters upon his release that he believes the police and criminal court “acted by mistake” as the supreme court has struck down several provisions of the privileges law.
“Even the Prosecutor General’s office and the judges agreed that the process of my arrest was not the way it is supposed to be,” he said.
“I want to note that police officers and the people in criminal court who dealt with me treated me very well. As someone who was arrested in 2004, and 2012 I notice how much the conduct of people in these institutions have changed, but in a good way, forwards not backwards, in the direction of progress.
“The rules and procedures are much stricter than it was in 2004, but it is not their fault. They treated me very humanely, without any animosity.”
Gasim was arrested on Thursday night on charges of attempting to bribe lawmakers and trying to overthrow the government. On Friday, the criminal court remanded the business tycoon for six days and asked the police to submit evidence.
Defence lawyers denounced the arrest and remand as unlawful as the police only submitted a secret intelligence report as evidence. The police also told the court that Gasim might tamper with evidence and poses a threat to society.
Gasim’s arrest came 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.
Despite his release, Gasim is facing trial on charges of bribery, influencing official conduct, and improperly influencing voters.
A spokesman for the PG office confirmed that the case was filed with the criminal court on Tuesday.
Under the new penal code, the bribery charge carries a maximum penalty of eight years in prison and the other charges carry a maximum jail sentence of four years each.
The MP for the Maamigili constituency will lose his seat if he is found guilty on any of the charges. According to the constitution, a sitting MP will be disqualified if he is jailed for more than one year.
The PG office also filed a case against MP Abdulla Riyaz on Tuesday. The JP deputy leader is accused of obstructing the duty of a law enforcement officer, a charge that carries a maximum jail term of one year.
Riyaz, a former police commissioner, has since declared his innocence and dismissed the case as politically motivated.
The first hearing of Riyaz’s trial has been scheduled for 10 am on Thursday.
Gasim’s trial is scheduled to begin at 11:30 am. The court could order the police to hold both MPs in custody until the end of the trial.
In the wake of the contentious no-confidence vote against the parliament’s speaker, Riyaz was summoned to police headquarters for questioning on charges of spreading false rumours and attempting to influence the police force.
His mobile phone was also confiscated. Police later accused him of obstruction after he refused to unlock the iPhone with his fingerprint.
Riyaz told the Maldives Independent at the time that he was targeted because of the government’s “failure to digest” the grand coalition formed between opposition parties and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s faction of the divided ruling party.
“They claimed I was spreading false rumours and trying to influence the police force. The false rumours they are alleging is a statement I made at a press conference last week in which I said the country cannot be handed over to a mafia gang,” he said.
“I do not believe the police can summon and question politicians over what they say.”
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 legal government of the Maldives.”
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 arrest also triggered protests in Gasim’s constituency. Supporters have been protesting on the islands of Maamigili and Fenfushi in Alif Dhaal atoll. Opposition supporters have also staged protests on the islands of Thulhaadhoo in Baa atoll and Villigili in Gaaf Alif atoll.
Additional reporting by Saya Ahmed and Hassan Moosa.