Former President Mohamed Nasheed and six senior officials of his administration have been ordered to repay government funds they had “misused,” the finance ministry has said.
The seven were told to reimburse the treasury within seven days or face lawsuits.
The order comes amid renewed tension in Malé amid speculation of a plot to oust President Abdulla Yameen, who has been dogged by allegations of corruption over the theft of some US$80million from state coffers.
A finance ministry spokesman declined to reveal details of the amount each of the former officials were ordered to pay back, but said the figures were based on reports by the auditor general’s office and investigations by the anti-graft watchdog.
Mohamed Aslam, a former housing minister, said he is being asked to reimburse MVR312,928 (US$20,294) he had used on mobile phone calls.
“This is politically motivated,” he said.
Others on the finance ministry list were Mohamed Shihab, former home minister, Ahmed Naseem and Dr Ahmed Shaheed, former foreign ministers, Hussain Rasheed Ahmed, former minister of state for Islamic affairs, and Mohamed Aswan, former commissioner general of customs.
Critics said the move was aimed at diverting attention from an upcoming corruption expose by Al Jazeera.
“This is obviously political chaff to distract attention from the Al Jazeera documentary, and betrays the intensity of government’s nervousness about what they think is in the documentary,” said Shaheed, who now lives in Colchester, United Kingdom, and was recently appointed by the UN human rights council as its rapporteur on freedom of religion.
Mohamed Shifaz, the vice president of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, said: “You cannot fool the Maldivian people. We know who the real thieves are. This is a diversion.”
Aiman Ahmed, finance ministry spokesman, called the timing a coincidence.
“This is not political,” he said, dismissing allegations of targeting opposition leaders. “The laws are very clear. It is our duty to recover this money.”
When asked why ministry had not acted on previous audit reports, including that of the administrations of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, he said: “This is a beginning. We cannot announce everything at once.”
The ministry has handed over letters to four of the seven, he said.
Nasheed’s lawyer declined to comment.
The former president, whose conviction on a terror charge triggered the political crisis that continues to roil the Maldives, was granted political refugee status in the UK earlier this year.
He traveled to Sri Lanka with Naseem earlier this week, fuelling speculation of Yameen’s imminent ouster.
The Maldives United Opposition, a broad coalition of opposition parties and former senior government officials led by Nasheed and Yameen’s former deputy Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, have vowed to arrest Yameen on corruption charges.
Yameen is also battling a breakaway faction of his own party led by his half brother, Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years.
A spokesman for Yameen confirmed to the BBC that it was aware of a “formal attempt at ‘legally’ overthrowing the government.” In the wake of the BBC report, Yameen’s ministers have dismissed the possibility that the government could be toppled.
The security forces are on alert, and the Maldives National Defence Forces on Wednesday organised a gathering to promote “patriotism and love of nation” among soldiers.