Gasim Ibrahim has been remanded for six days by the criminal court on charges of bribery as international concern grew of the opposition lawmaker’s arrest.
The defence counsel for the leader of the Jumhooree Party said his arrest on Thursday and subsequent remand was unlawful, claiming the police have no evidence to back their charge that he bribed lawmakers in the unsuccessful vote to remove speaker Abdulla Maseeh in March.
The criminal court gave the police six days “to find evidence,” lawyers said on Friday, pledging to appeal the ruling on Sunday.
Remand hearings are closed to the media and the public.
The police declined to comment citing an on going investigation.
Gasim’s arrest follows an intensified crackdown on the opposition by President Abdulla Yameen, who is battling a newly minted coalition between Gasim’s JP, his brother and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s faction of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives and former President Mohamed Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party.
The coalition is attempting to weaken Yameen’s tight grip on power by gaining control of the parliament.
Gasim’s legal counsel includes heavyweight lawyer Hisaan Hussein, who represented Nasheed during his trial on terrorism charges, MDP MP Mariya Ahmed Didi, a former attorney general, and PPM MP Mohamed Waheed.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing, Hisaan said the only evidence police had submitted against Gasim was a secret intelligence report.
“They have no evidence,” she said. “Gasim is being held because they claim he might tamper with this non-existent evidence. We don’t know how someone can tamper with or destroy evidence that does not exist.”
“If they are suggesting he might tamper with evidence, there should also be evidence that Gasim tried to do something that affects said evidence,” she said.
Locking people up for investigation is unlawful, she said. The practice, however, is widely employed by the police and the criminal court.
Police presence was high around the criminal court ahead of Gasim’s hearing.
All surrounding roads were closed to traffic and a small crowd of opposition supporters who had gathered many streets away were pushed further back by riot police who carried shields and pepper spray.
A spokesman for the United Nations meanwhile told reporters in Geneva on Friday that they were monitoring the situation closely and reiterated a call for inclusive dialogue.
James Dauris, the ambassador for the United Kingdom, in a Twitter post, described Gasim’s arrest as “another sad day for democracy” while the German embassy to the Maldives issued a statement urging the government to stop the harassment of opposition lawmakers, media and civil society.
“The ongoing worrying developments are clearly not conducive to the sustainable economic development of the Maldives,” Germany said on Friday.
The opposition has pledged to hold daily rallies to protest Gasim’s arrest.
The housing ministry on Friday night cordoned off the street in front of the JP headquarters, where the rallies are to take place.
An opposition spokesman said the move was aimed at harassing the opposition, but the ministry said it was part of an ongoing project to repair Malé’s streets.
On Friday night, the police dispersed supporters from the area claiming they were hindering the work of the road repair crew.
Last week, the defence counsel said they expect Gasim to be brought to trial soon as police have forwarded a case for prosecution. At the time, the prosecutor general’s office said it could not verify the claim.
The tax authority has also put a freeze on the accounts of Gasim’s Villa Shipping and Trading Company.
The 65-year-old businessman and two-time presidential candidate had played a key role in helping Yameen win the 2013 elections. Since then, he has come under pressure every time he has withdrawn support for the president.