South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

A new report finds the government guilty of compromising the judiciary and engineering unfair trials.

Maldives at risk of sliding back into authoritarianism, warns new report

The new Maldives government has severely compromised the independence of the country’s judiciary, putting the island-nation at risk of returning to the authoritarianism it seemed to have abandoned in 2008,  warned a report released on Tuesday.

“The delegation was particularly concerned by a clear politicisation of the judiciary that has eroded the rule of law,” said  the report titled Justice Adrift: Rule of Law and Political Crisis in the Maldives, compiled by the South Asians for Human Rights and the International Commission of Jurists, which visited the nation in May.

In addition, the report claims that critical voices have been silenced, with journalists disappearing or facing threats and arrests. Civil society organisations challenging the government are threatened with dissolution and the right to peaceful assembly has been compromised.

The alarm about judicial independence was triggered by the detention, sentencing and conviction of former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was forced to resign in 2012 after he was charged with the unlawful arrest of a judge, Abdullah Mohamed. Under the new government headed by President Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom, voted into power in 2013, the charges were replaced with those under the more severe Terrorism Act. Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison on March 13.

The trial court repeatedly denied the defence the chance to cross-examine prosecution witnesses or to call its own witnesses, the report said. On March 9, just days before the sentencing, the defence team recused itself, claiming the trial was being conducted in an unfair manner. Nasheed was denied fresh counsel. The defence had also asked for two of the judges to back out of the trial, since they had been close confidantes of Mohamed, the judge arrested by Nasheed in 2012. “The apparent conflict of interest on the part of two out of the three judges trying the case clearly meant that a trial of Mr Nasheed before those judges on these charges could by no means be reasonably seen as impartial,” observes the report.

The report also cited the irregularities in the trial of former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, arrested in January on charges of importing and possessing illegal weapons.

Tentacles of the parliament

Apart from high-profile arrests and trials, the report documents how the parliament has slowly encroached on independent institutions, including the judiciary. In December 2014, it enacted a controversial amendment to the Judicature Act. This reduced the number of Supreme Court judges from seven to five. The two judges who were dropped in the process had a history of giving dissenting judgments. The report also cites the arbitrary removal of the auditor general, appointed by Nasheed, and the parliament’s questioning of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives in a closed-door night session on March 16. This was after the commission had issued a press release raising concerns about Nasheed’s trial.

Nasheed, who came to power in 2008, was the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. His administration succeeded 30 years dictatorship under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Nasheed’s tenure saw the drafting of a new constitution that guaranteed fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary. He claims he was made to resign at gunpoint in 2012. Parliamentary elections the following year saw the victory of Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom, half-brother of the former dictator. The new government has reversed the democratic processes set in motion by Nasheed, the report claims.

International pressure

The report has been released a month before the Maldives’ human rights record comes up for discussion before the United Nations Human Rights Council. International opinion has already put pressure on the current government to ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms are protected. India has not been entirely silent either. In March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his visit to the Maldives, citing “political unrest”. It was meant to send “a strong message” to a Maldives government bent on suppressing the opposition. But after the arrests and detentions in May, Delhi has been oddly quiet.

India has maintained a delicate balancing act between the two opposing political forces in the country. In 1988, when the Gayoom regime was threatened by a coup, the Indian army launchedOperation Cactus to stave it off. Later, India shifted its sympathies to Nasheed and when the former president was arrested in 2013, he took refuge in the Indian high commission in Male. However, President Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom attended Modi’s swearing in last year. The two leaders kept up an active engagement, at least in the first months of Modi’s tenure. The more recent chill has also been attributed to the Maldives’ growing intimacy with China, which competes with India for regional dominance.

Given the conflicting compulsions on the Indian government, it remains to be seen how hard it will lobby for human rights in the Maldives now. Updated On: 26th August 2015