Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof, the spokesperson of the Maldives United Opposition, has been convicted of obstructing police duty and sentenced to four months and 24 days in prison.
He was accused of trying to “flee” from the police after a remand hearing at the criminal court on April 3 last year.
Mahloof remains a lawmaker despite his conviction today. A sitting MP can only be stripped of his seat if he is sentenced to more than one year in prison.
But the MP for Galolhu South will not be able to attend parliament sittings or committee meetings.
The charge of obstructing police duty carries either a fine of no more than MVR12,000 (US$778) or a jail sentence of no more than six months.
Mahloof’s lawyer Abdulla Haseen told reporters after the sentencing that he had urged the judge to consider imposing the fine as it was the defendant’s first offence.
A fine would also ensure that Mahloof’s constituents are represented in parliament, he added.
He also noted that opposition MP Ali Azim was fined MVR3,000 (US$195) in February after being found guilty of refusing to obey a police officer’s order to leave a protest area.
“We’re not surprised by this verdict because we knew an unjust ruling was likely,” he said.
Haseen said he will appeal the verdict as soon as possible.
The criminal court meanwhile refused to let journalists into the sentencing hearing this afternoon. Court officials did not explain why the hearing was closed to the public.
The constitution, however, requires all trials to be held publicly. Court judgments must also be pronounced publicly.
Opposition MPs and dozens of supporters gathered in front of the criminal court in solidarity with Mahloof. But riot police quickly pushed them back to the opposite pavement.
— MDP Secretariat (@MDPSecretariat) July 18, 2016
Mahloof told reporters before the sentencing that his trial was “clearly politically motivated.”
He alleged that jail sentences are handed down to politicians on the orders of President Abdulla Yameen and the chief judge of the criminal court.
Mahloof urged the public to attend the MUO’s first rally on Thursday night and subsequent street protests to work towards “bringing an end to President Yameen’s government.”
At the final hearing of the trial on July 10, Mahloof told the judge that he tried to prevent police officers from manhandling his wife outside the court building. He dismissed the allegation that he tried to flee as “absurd.”
Journalists from Raajje TV and Villa TV testified as defence witnesses, but the state prosecutor said they would not have seen the incident.
During the trial, Haseen contended that the testimony of key prosecution witnesses was contradictory. He also argued that police officers had a conflict of interest in testifying in a case involving alleged obstruction of police duty.
After the incident on April 3 last year, Mahloof’s wife said police officers pinched her, twisted her arm and tore buttons from her top. The police denied the allegations.
Mahloof is also on trial on a separate count of obstructing police duty, stemming from his arrest from an opposition protest on the night of March 25, 2015. He was accused of scaling barricades set up near the local market and trying to enter the restricted Republic Square.
A hearing of the trial took place at 10am this morning. The judge reportedly continued proceedings after refusing to accept defence witnesses.
A final hearing has been scheduled for tomorrow. If he is found guilty again, the MP could face a further jail sentence of up to six months.
Mahloof joins the ranks of high-profile politicians and state officials jailed since March last year, which now include a former president, two former defence ministers, a ruling party MP, an opposition party leader, a former vice president, a senior military officer, a former chief prosecutor, and a magistrate.
Since his expulsion from the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives for “defaming” Yameen in February 2015, Mahloof has been at the forefront of opposition protests against the current administration’s “tyranny” and corruption.
He was arrested multiple times over the past year, most recently on Saturday while promoting the first rally of the new opposition coalition.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has meanwhile condemned Mahloof’s sentencing as “yet another act of suppression of free speech and a further attack against the peaceful political opposition in the country.”
By jailing a prominent opposition figure, the government is “sending a message that dissent of any kind will not be tolerated, even by elected officials,” the party said in a statement.
Mahloof has “been singularly hounded and persecuted by this regime,” the MDP said, adding that today’s verdict “is the latest in a series of such sentences undertaken against opposition political figures, and is yet another example of the judicial perpetuation of the government’s policy of oppression.”
Mahloof had said last night that he had learned that he would be jailed today. “God willing, I will work harder than now when I’m free,” he tweeted.
You’re an inspiration for the youth, President @MohamedNasheed. Thank you for the support. It’s a pleasure working under your leadership
— Ahmed Mahloof (@AhmedMahloof) July 17, 2016
They can put @AhmedMahloof away. There shall be many Mahloofs. Italians killed Omar El Mukhtar, his followers chased Italians from Lybia!
— Hussain Shameem (@HuShameem) July 17, 2016
Haraam hukum kohgen alhganduge anbidharinnai mainbafainna vakikuruvaa Yameen/Baari fahathun alhugandu hingaanan pic.twitter.com/PJ63pDOVIh
— Ahmed Mahloof (@AhmedMahloof) July 17, 2016
As u go in2 court tomorrow remember that u r loved by thousands while the judge sitting there isn’t trusted by any. https://t.co/UGbEViFIJ6
— MP Rozaina Adam (@Roxeyna) July 17, 2016