WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department voiced strong objection on Monday to the Maldives Supreme Court's dismissal of the country's top election officials for failing to follow its guidelines during last year's presidential election.
"These actions 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 spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
On Sunday, the Maldives Supreme Court ordered the head of the election commission, Fuwad Thowfeek, and his deputy, Ahmed Fayaz, removed from their posts and asked the parliament to appoint replacements within six days. Thowfeek received a six-month jail sentence, suspended for three years.
The election commission came under the court's scrutiny last year when it went ahead with a presidential runoff after three previous attempts were annulled or postponed by the court.
Mohamed Nasheed, the Asian country's first democratically elected president, who was ousted in February 2012, narrowly lost a November 16 runoff to the current president, Abdulla Yameen. Nasheed's opposition coalition is challenging Yameen's ruling coalition in a March 22 vote.
Last month, the election commission disbanded eight political parties with less than 3,000 members in line with a parliamentary act passed last year, despite the Supreme Court asking it not to go forward with the move.
The court, which tried the two men and other members of the commission last month, said it determined that Thowfeek and Fayaz must bear responsibility for "disobeying and challenging" Supreme Court judgments and orders, which were issued in its capacity as "the guardian of the constitution."
Saying it "strongly objects" to the court's actions, the State Department added: "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."
(Reporting by Peter Cooney; Additional reporting by Daniel Bosley in Male; Editing by Ken Wills)