Aust warns Maldives to release leaders

Opposition leaders in the Maldives have been thrown in jail and Australia wants them released before upcoming presidential elections.

Maldives President Abdulla Yameen threw nine opposition leaders in jail in February, amid growing concerns about authoritarian rule in the island nation.

"The Australian government is increasingly concerned at actions taken by the Maldives government that undermine democracy and democratic institutions and reduce the prospect that the upcoming presidential election can be free and fair," Australia's ambassador to the Maldives Bryce Hutchesson said on Tuesday, several days after a visit to the country.

"Australia calls in particular on the Maldives government to release political prisoners and permit legitimate opposition activity, which is essential for any election to be credible."

Presidential elections are due in September.

Better known as a high-quality holiday destination, the country of more than 400,000 people went into a political crisis in February when the Supreme Court quashed terrorism convictions for nine opposition leaders.

President Yameen defied the court ruling and ordered security forces to seize control of the court and arrest the chief justice and another judge.

Located near key shipping lanes, the Maldives has assumed greater importance after China began building political and economic ties as part of its so-called 'String Of Pearls' strategy to build a network of ports in the Indian Ocean region.

Having historically held more clout in the islands, India has sought to push back against China's growing influence there.

Rights group Amnesty International in February said the government was using the emergency "as a licence for repression, targeting members of civil society, judges and political opponents".