Volume 22 Issue 1, January 2018

The recent lawyers’ movement in the Maldives can be termed as the biggest effort for legal reform in a country where senior judges receive money and luxury flats and meet regularly with the president and his deputy, who meddle in high-profile cases and judicial appointments. It was undoubtedly a red letter day in the history of the country when on August 30, 2017, more than 20 lawyers, including a former attorney general, former solicitor general and former deputy prosecutor general, gathered outside the Supreme Court in Malé with a 14-point petition endorsed by 56 lawyers outlining concerns about the deteriorating state of the judiciary in the country.

The lawyers told the media gathered outside the court premises that there had been multiple cases of corruption, constitutional overreach, intimidation of lawyers and judges and contravention of rights of those on trial and the Judicial Service Commission, the country’s judicial watchdog failed to counter or condemn the rampant politicisation in the judiciary. This was especially visible when members of the political opposition were tried: hearings were conducted over consecutive days and the verdict was often issued at midnight, a practice, that “cannot be accepted by any means,” according to the lawyers.

As expected, the petition was not accepted and shockingly enough the Department of Judicial Administration (DJA) suspended all signatories, which together reportedly make up a third of all practicing lawyers in the Maldives, over charges of contempt and for gathering in a manner that “obstructs the independence of justice system.” The people in Malé lodged a protest against the suspension of the lawyers. However, the suspension orders of a number of lawyers were reportedly withdrawn after written apologies were submitted.

A study carried out by the United Nations Development Programme has revealed that 71 per cent of Maldivians prefer to settle disputes out of court, mainly due to lack of confidence in the justice system. The trust deficit, however, goes back several years. Before the Maldives transitioned to democracy in 2008, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was the first to populate the judiciary with his loyalists. When the first democratically elected government was formed, the newly adopted constitution had scheduled for the periodic reappointment of judges based on merit. But the Judicial Service Commission, which had among its members some of Gayoom’s loyalists, dismissed the constitutional provision as “symbolic” and in 2010, allowed them to be sworn in on a lifetime basis.

The alliance of four opposition parties also sharply reacted and said the suspension by President Abdulla Yameen's government means dissidents would no longer have access to quality legal counsel. They said an immediate practical implication of the suspension would be that individuals who were unfairly targeted, including high profile politicians, as well as members of parliament and were recently stripped of their seats by President Yameen’s regime, will find it virtually impossible to find effective legal counsel.

Can the judiciary afford to go against the wishes of President Yameen? Certainly not, because under his patronage, the Supreme Court, through a series of rulings, has granted itself several extra-constitutional powers. By appointing itself as the head of the Department of Judicial Administration in 2014 and seizing the regulatory authority of the attorney general’s office in 2016, it granted itself powers to transfer, appoint, certify and dismiss judges and lawyers. In May, it declared itself the final authority to determine the validity of no-confidence votes passed in the Parliament. In return, when the ruling party was set to lose its parliamentary majority, as its members were on the brink of switching over to the opposite camp, led by Nasheed and Gayoom, who had struck an agreement to unseat Yameen, the Supreme Court ruled that MPs would lose seats in case they quit, switched sides or were expelled from the political parties they were a part of. Each of these measures ended in consolidating the position of the president. They insulated him from criticism, criminal investigation, prosecution and impeachment.

In fact, the petition came on the back of these and several other decisions that pointed to the increasing politicisation of the judiciary under Yameen. In the petition, the lawyers also criticised the courts for their flagrant disregard of due processes, allowing anonymous witnesses and secret intelligence reports as evidence during the trials of members of political opposition. In 2017, retired Kenyan Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, an envoy of Commonwealth Secretary General, had observed that such long-term detention of the opposition figures “eroded the government and the judiciary’s legitimacy.”

These alarming developments in the Indian Ocean state are being closely monitored by the international community.
Recently, American and European governments spoke out about the fast-deteriorating situation in the Maldives, expressing “concern about the deterioration of fundamental freedoms and the institutions of democracy, including freedom of assembly and press." The United Nations also weighed in, describing the country's new defamation laws as “crippling freedom of expression."

In short the political landscape of the Maldives now appears to be in ruins because of a corrupt judiciary. When the Germans were bombing London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was briefed on the casualties and economic collapse. He asked, “Are the courts functioning?” When told that the judges were dispensing justice as normal, Churchill replied, “Thank God. If the courts are working, nothing can go wrong.”

The writer is a free-lance journalist.

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