Updated: 03/11/2014 17:28 | By Agence France-Presse

US criticises Maldives over sacking of elections chief

The United States led international criticism of the Maldives on Tuesday after the island nation's top court sacked its election commissioner two weeks before polls, questioning its commitment to democracy.

US criticises Maldives over sacking of elections chief

Maldives' Election Commissioner Fuwad Thowfeek, who has been sacked and handed a suspended jail term for criticising judges, is pictured in Male on November 10, 2013, - by Ishara S.Kodikara

The US State Department accused the Supreme Court of overstating its powers and undermining the election commission after Fuwad Thowfeek and his deputy were sacked Sunday for "disobeying and challenging" its orders.

The Supreme Court handed Thowfeek a six-month prison sentence, suspended for three years, raising concerns the decision could throw the tourism-reliant Indian Ocean nation back into political turmoil. 

"These actions (of sacking) represent an unprecedented expansion of judicial powers which undermines an independent democratic institution that has made laudable efforts to hold multiple successful elections despite previous judicial interference," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.

"The Supreme Court's insistence on holding parliamentary elections on March 22 while imprisoning the very official responsible for holding those elections calls into serious question the government’s commitment to democracy," she said.

The ruling has reopened the controversy over last year's presidential election on the honeymoon islands, when Supreme Court judges annulled the results of a first round won by former president Mohamed Nasheed, and then cancelled two other polls at the last minute.

Nasheed lost last year's presidential elections to the half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the former strongman who ruled the Indian Ocean archipelago for 30 years. 

Abdulla Yameen won the November 16 presidential vote, five years after the island nation introduced multi-party democracy.

Nasheed's main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has slammed Sunday's sackings as ridiculous and is now deciding whether to carry out a threat to boycott the March 22 parliamentary polls.

Britain said it was "closely following" developments, while Canada warned the move could jeopardise the nation's "democratic transition".

"An independent and effective election commission is an essential element in any genuine democracy, and undermining the commission and its ability to function again places the Maldives' democratic transition in question," the Canadian foreign ministry said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern over the sackings, while also calling for peaceful and credible elections later this month.

"The Secretary-General underlines the importance of respect for the principle of separation of powers, the rule of law, and the independence of constitutionally established bodies," his office said in a statement.

Gayoom had appointed most of the current judiciary before being defeated by Nasheed in the islands' first democratic polls in 2008 and foreign diplomats regarded the delays last year as a politically-motivated ploy to prevent Nasheed's return to power.

The Maldives, better known for its upmarket tourism, had been hit by political instability after Nasheed was forced to step down in February 2012 in what he says was a military-backed coup orchestrated by Gayoom loyalists.

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