The UN human rights chief on Wednesday called the declaration of a state of emergency in the Maldives and the resulting suspension of constitutional guarantees an "all-out assault on democracy."
Political turmoil has swept the Maldives since a surprise court ruling last week that ordered the release of jailed opposition leaders, including many of President Yameen Abdul Gayoom's main political rivals. He imposed a state of emergency on Monday.
Maldives became a multiparty democracy 10 years ago but lost much of those gains after Yameen was elected in 2013.
Zeid said in a statement issued by his office in Geneva that Yameen "has, to put it bluntly, usurped the authority of the state's rule-of-law institutions and its ability to work independently from the executive." What is happening now, he said, "is tantamount to an all-out assault on democracy."
Zeid's criticism came a day after three Maldives Supreme Court justices annulled their earlier order to free the imprisoned opposition politicians after two of the court's justices were arrested.
The annulment came after Yameen declared the state of emergency, which gives officials sweeping powers to make arrests, search and seize property and restrict freedom of assembly.
The UN and many foreign governments including the United States, Britain and India have expressed concern over the state of emergency and have urged Yameen to respect the earlier court order.
Hours after the emergency was declared, security forces in riot gear stormed the Supreme Court building, arresting the two judges, including Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed. It was not immediately clear what charges they face, if any.
Security forces also arrested former dictator and opposition politician Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. His lawyer, Maumoon Hameed, said Gayoom faced charges including bribery and attempting to overthrow the government.
Gayoom was president from 1978 to 2008, when the Maldives became a multiparty democracy.
The Maldives is an archipelago of more than 1,000 islands with fewer than 400,000 citizens, more than one-third of them living in the crowded capital city, Male. Tourism now dominates the economy, with wealthy foreigners flown to hyper-expensive resort islands.
But it remains, in many ways, a small community. Gayoom, the former dictator, is the half brother of President Yameen. The two men are now political enemies. Former President Mohamed Nasheed, now the opposition leader, unseated Gayoom in the country's first democratic elections in 2008. He and Gayoom are now political allies in an opposition alliance.