By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations urged the Maldives on Tuesday not to carry out planned executions for convicts on death row and to uphold a moratorium the Indian Ocean archipelago had respected for decades.
The country has not executed anyone since 1954 as previous presidents had all commuted any death sentences handed down, while leaving capital punishment legal. But the Supreme Court last month said its decisions on death sentences are final, overruling a High Court stay order on executions.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said there have been a number of worrying developments concerning capital punishment in the Maldives since November.
"It is deeply regrettable that a series of steps have been taken to resume executions in the country,” he said in a statement. Maldives government officials were not immediately available for comments.
President Abdulla Yameen, who defends capital punishment as part of the Islamic law he wants to implement in the majority Muslim country, is under international pressure to uphold the rule of law.
His administration has jailed several opponents - including Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected president - after hasty trials criticized by rights groups.
Former Maldives foreign minister Dunya Maumoon quit in July in protest against the government's support for capital punishment, which it reiterated in May by announcing it would go ahead with executions.
Mona Rishmawi, chief of the rule of law branch at the U.N. human rights office, said there are 17 people currently on death row in the Maldives. In three cases, the U.N. office is "very worried" because of concerns over the fairness of the trials.
"What happened is that last year, they entered an item in the budget to allow for execution chambers. So we know that they are basically making it possible and they are ready to execute," Rishmawi told reporters.
Rishmawi said the U.N. had serious concerns over access to a fair trial in the Maldives, noting that former president Nasheed was not allowed to present his defense in court in 2015 when he was tried on terrorism charges for having ordered the arrest of a judge.
Nasheed, who was president from 2008 until he stepped down amid protests in 2012, was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom when he was allowed to go there for surgery in January of this year.
(Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Tom Heneghan)