Maldives' Supreme Court has exonerated exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed and ordered that key political prisoners be released in a major blow to the island nation's embattled government. The country's top court ruled that the charges against these individuals were politically motivated.

However, riot police had to be called into action after clashes broke out on Friday, 2 February, in the capital city of Male following the anti-government ruling, with pro-opposition forces calling for the immediate release of the prisoners. The court's decision to clear former leader Nasheed, along with others, of all charges would effectively reinstate 12 parliamentarians, thus restoring an opposition majority. Nasheed, though, has not returned to Maldives yet and is currently in Sri Lanka.

The violence underscores the turbulent history of the archipelago, which has a population of around 420,000. Under the current government, led by President Abdulla Yameen, the image of the popular honeymoon destination – known for its holiday resorts and serene beaches – has taken a hit as he was relentlessly cracking down on any dissent from the opposition.

"The Supreme Court's verdict effectively ends President Yameen's authoritarian rule," said the opposition in a statement and called for Yameen's removal.

The opposition forces insist that they will not scale back their protests until the court's verdict is adhered to and all the political prisoners are freed.

Former vice president Ahmed Adheeb Abdul Ghafoor is also expected to be one of the prisoners who will be released.

In response to the court's order, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Hussain Shihab said, "While the ruling makes significant implications on various points of constitutional import and criminal justice procedures, it was issued without representation of the state from either the attorney general or the prosecutor general."

But he added that Yameen's regime "will work to engage, and consult with, the Supreme Court in order to comply with the ruling in line with proper procedure and the rule of law".

Meanwhile, the attorney general, who sacked the country's police chief shortly after the judicial verdict, said the government is studying the order.

Yameen took over as president in 2013, winning against Nasheed in an election, which took place a year after Nasheed was forced to resign over rising political upheaval in the country.

After he lost the elections, Nasheed – the state's first democratically elected president – was slapped with a 13-year jail term for terrorism, triggering widespread condemnation. He later fled the country and was forced to live in exile.

Maldives' former president Mohamed Nasheed
Maldives' former president Mohamed Nasheed speaks during a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters