FEBRUARY began with Abdulla Yameen in complete charge of Maldivian politics. One by one, he had seen off his political opponents. The courts had meekly convicted his predecessor-but-one as president, his vice president, his defence minister and the heads of two opposition parties. They had also awarded him control of the ruling party, which was being contested by his half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Mr Yameen’s predecessor-but-two, who had ruled as a dictator for 30 years. The Election Commission stripped 12 opposition MPs of their seats, and the Supreme Court made it impossible for pro-government MPs to defect to the opposition and keep their parliamentary jobs. That protected Mr Yameen from impeachment, among other inconveniences.

So it came as quite a surprise when the same Supreme Court overturned all these decisions out of the blue late on February 1st. The trials of all the opposition figures, it declared, had been politically motivated. They should be retried, it said, and released in the meantime. As for the deposed opposition MPs, they should be reinstated, depriving Mr Yameen’s government of its majority in parliament. “The Supreme Court’s verdict effectively ends President Yameen’s authoritarian rule,” announced a jubilant statement from the opposition.

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America, Britain and India, all of which have been alarmed by Mr Yameen’s cosy relationship with China, welcomed the ruling, but the government did not seem as enthusiastic. Mohamed Anil, the attorney-general, cast doubt on its authenticity, saying he would “vet and clarify” the ruling. Another minister denounced it as a coup. The chief of police had tweeted that he would follow the judges’ orders, but at a midnight press conference Mr Anil explained that the president had dismissed him. There was no sign that the court’s orders had been followed.

Instead, the police, under new management, began to fire tear gas at the jubilant crowds of opposition supporters who were thronging the streets of Male, the capital. Meanwhile, Mohamed Nasheed, the former president whose conviction has now been quashed, prevaricated about returning from exile in Sri Lanka. He did call on Mr Yameen to resign, but that seems unlikely. Just last week, Mr Yameen suggested he would intervene in any institution of state that he thought was “losing its way”, including the courts.

The opposition’s anger at Mr Yameen’s growing authoritarianism was bound to come to a head at some point, not least because a huge corruption scandal has engulfed his government. Al-Jazeera, an international broadcaster, recorded a former bagman claiming that he had carried suitcases of cash between the former vice-president and the president, although the government insists that the president was not involved.

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