The declaration of emergency in the Maldives on 5 February 2018, followed by the arrest of senior judges and politicians, drew international censure, and the emergency was lifted after 45 days. However, although the country is moving towards presidential elections, expected to be held in September, new measures and restrictions have skewed the electoral field. Himal Southasian interviewed Mushfiq Mohamed, a senior legal officer with the Maldivian Democracy Network, who spoke to us about the elections, the country’s frail criminal justice system, and prospects of international sanctions against government officials.
Himal Southasian: The Maldives is no longer in a state of emergency and the country is preparing for Presidential elections scheduled for September. Have the steps taken during the emergency against the judiciary and the political opposition, as well as the restrictions curbing civic spaces, been removed?
Mushfiq Mohamed: Although the State of Emergency (SoE) ended in March after domestic and international pressure, many of the changes brought during the emergency are ongoing. President Abdulla Yameen has used the emergency law to purge political opponents, members of the judiciary and security forces. He resorts to such heavy-handed tactics when he feels politically weak, as a show of strength to project power. It also directly adds to the climate of fear, intimidation and harassment against activists, journalists and civil society actors.
State institutions are still paralysed – the Parliament is under lockdown, and without consultation with their constituencies opposition, MPs have been boycotting sessions, indirectly enabling anti-democratic amendments to laws and regulations. Around 12 MPs have been stripped of their seats through the judiciary, a manufactured move to shift the parliamentary majority towards the ruling party after defections. The arbitrary arrests of judges from the Maldives’ Supreme Court also ensure that judicial independence is compromised through fear of political persecution.
More specifically, the visitation rights of detainees and client-attorney privileges remain restricted since the SoE, by limiting the times when lawyers or family members can visit their clients or loved ones as well as the number of lawyers who can visit the client simultaneously, and through surveillance on discussions between lawyers and their clients. We also believe that the remand jail built inside the Maafushi prison requires urgent attention. The police ordinarily remand pretrial detainees at the Dhoonidhoo Custodial Centre. These new changes were brought in for high-profile detainees arrested during the SoE, but these politically motivated changes affect all those in custody. In a country where detainees are regularly treated as convicts by law enforcement, these changes solidify such backward notions and practices.
Despite compelling evidence of violence and torture against those arrested during the protests following the SoE, the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) concluded its investigations into individual cases of torture in favour of the police. There were also reliable reports of the HRCM ‘interrogating’ lawyers representing the said victims of torture.
HSA: The senior political figures of the opposition are all barred from contesting the polls. How do you see the electoral process unfolding?
MM: We and many other observers have repeatedly said that the run-up to the elections is crucial to gauge the extent to which an election can turn out free and fair. I don’t see a change in course, but we keep witnessing the anti-democratic forces, both internal and external, become more entrenched. Almost all presidential hopefuls have been imprisoned or forced into exile.
Since President Yameen came to power, two former presidents, two Supreme Court justices, one magistrate, two vice presidents, two defence ministers, almost all leaders of opposition parties, several MPs and the prosecutor general have been prosecuted or convicted, or are at various stages of incarceration.
HSA: Who are the major candidates?
MM: The joint opposition has the Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) parliamentary group leader, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, as its presidential candidate after former president Mohamed Nasheed was forced to give up his primary ticket. Nasheed remains in exile after the Criminal Court convicted him of terrorism following trumped-up charges in 2015. Jumhooree Party (JP), the MDP’s coalition partner, was given the vice-presidential slot. The JP conducted its internal elections to choose a running mate for the joint-opposition presidential candidate. Faisal Naseem, a businessman from Fuvahmulah and the MP for Kashidoo constituency, won with 15 votes at the council meeting where the voting took place.
HAS: Can you briefly explain the electoral system?
MM: The Maldives held its first multiparty elections in 2008. Before that, political parties were banned, and the government-controlled People’s Majlis selected a single presidential candidate. The public was then asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for the Majlis-chosen candidate. This structure enabled dictatorships to thrive in the Maldives, which once had Asia’s longest-serving leader, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who remained in power for 30 years.
Today, there are at least six registered political parties, and the electoral system has changed to one that involves a direct vote by the public to elect the country’s leader for a five-year term. Each president is only allowed to complete two five-year terms. The Maldives has a majoritarian election system. If any single candidate is not able to secure over 50 percent of the votes cast in the first round, like the French system, the runoff voting decides the winner of the presidential elections. Candidates with the least amount of votes are eliminated, and those with a substantial proportion of the votes proceed to the second round.
HSA: What are the recent changes in the electoral process?
MM: The Parliament brought amendments to election laws and regulations on 9 July, which exclude certain individuals from contesting. MP Hussein Latheef of the ruling party proposed increasing the deposit that presidential aspirants have to submit to the Elections Commission (EC). The deposit required from prospective candidates was increased from MVR 40,000 (USD 2600) to MVR 100,000 (USD 6500). These changes were voted in without the required quorum.
On the same day, the People’s Majlis decided that those who have sought refuge overseas or those with dual citizenship would not be able to contest in the upcoming elections. The amendment states that such individuals would be eligible to run for office only ten years after giving up their asylum status or dual nationality.
The EC also attempted to violate the voting rights of 14 percent of the Maldivian workforce by decreasing the number of ballot boxes on resort islands to seven. After much domestic pressure, and the apparent threat of the EU’s targeted sanctions, the EC revised its position and claimed that ballot boxes will be placed on resort islands which have at least 100 Maldivian employees. Despite the step back by the EC, there is room for a tourist resort’s management to prevent voting for its employees by refusing to place ballot boxes.
On 12 July, the EC extended the application deadline for prospective presidential candidates. Initially, the date for applications was 15 July. The changes extend it up to 4 August. EC officials stated that they would announce the final list of presidential candidates and their running mates on 18 August. Again, the extension came at a time when President Yameen publicly stated that the EU had indicated its plans to impose restrictive measures on government officials.
Another issue of concern is the voter re-registration process. Voters who wish to cast their ballots outside the country or away from their permanent address have to re-register to vote from that specific location. There have been many reports of foul play, with ministries ordering their employees to re-register through the government or embassies ‘assisting’ voters re-register, but in reality, eliminating re-registration forms belonging to those who are perceived to be pro-opposition. Similarly, until 22 July, differently-abled individuals and senior citizens who need assistance were allowed to seek assistance only from a government official when voting. This has since been changed to allow them to seek help from a person of their own choosing.
HSA: What is your assessment of the electoral process? Is the process going to be free and fair, notwithstanding the limited pool of candidates?
MM: The process could be free and fair if the voter turnout is high and election observers are able to carry out their duties independently. However, the Supreme Court’s 16-point guideline makes it impossible for the Maldives to hold free and fair elections. It places unrealistic restrictions and timeframes, and gives security forces ample room to manipulate the results. Removal of the 16-point guideline was one of the recommendations of the EU’s election observer mission, which the government has refused to implement.
The politically maneuvered changes to election laws and rules mean that it is not only restricting whom you can vote for, but also who has the right to vote on Election Day. Surely, processes reached through unfair means, without an existing level playing field, will deliver a distorted result. Pro-democracy candidates have previously managed to get these votes in spite of the intimidation that precedes each election.
Now that Yameen has removed judges who are inconvenient for him, this might mean that the Supreme Court can overturn any election result unfavourable to him, as it did when Nasheed won the first round of elections in September 2013.
Additionally, vote rigging and buying remain a formidable threat to free and fair elections. Such practices have been normalised in the country historically, even though it has been criminalised under the law. Many ordinary people have been conditioned into viewing the elections as a business transaction, where the candidate who can buy the highest number of votes through gifts or bags of cash has an unfair advantage over others. The widening disparity between the haves and have-nots enable such illegal means of subverting election results.
HSA: What will be the major issues during the election?
MM: Similar to other countries in the global south, religion is used as a political tool during the elections, with all major parties trying to boost its Islamic credentials. Electoral issues are reduced to which candidate is more Islamic, even though the country has more pressing concerns than ‘defending’ its faith.
The death penalty is also used through a sharia lens to garner support from Maldivians who are fed up with violent street crime and murders. We haven’t had an execution for over half a century, and even then it wasn’t the norm but an exception in our criminal justice system. The government has recently revved up their death penalty rhetoric again after a hiatus since last year.
We have serious issues when it comes to infrastructure, such as housing, healthcare, transport, education, and employment. And there is lack of political will in tackling increasing violent extremism and fundamentalism, curbing growing gang culture and violent crimes, and preventing rampant corruption and abuse of human rights. These concerns are never addressed in the vaudeville of political noise that precedes elections.
On top of that, the judiciary and security services that are in politicians’ pockets are at the centre of why the Maldives is regressing at lightning speed.
HSA: How have the steps taken during the emergency impacted the criminal justice system of the country at large?
MM: The Maldivian criminal justice system is exceptionally susceptible to political influence. The most recent actions against Supreme Court judges, the prosecutor general and a Magistrates’ Court judge indicate that independence in the judicial sector is unwelcome, and those who go against the powers that be will be unduly punished. The public is fully aware of its subjection to the whims of politicians. In effect, most people disengage from these institutions due to the lack of trust – that might be the objective behind such excesses by the executive. It has given most people the idea – and rightly so – that these institutions don’t exist to serve the people, that it serves as an affront to justice.
When the Supreme Court ordered for politicians to be released, many didn’t view it as an act of judicial independence but as a political solution to growing authoritarianism in the country. It was seen as the judiciary falling out with the current embattled president. Although I don’t agree with Yameen’s actions against the Supreme Court, the verdict itself was quite problematic. He was able to use the lack of confidence in the judiciary to his advantage by depicting it as another case of judicial corruption.
This has far-reaching consequences for the future. In a country where conflicts of interest are rampant due to the minimal degree of separation among people, many have suggested that well-reputed foreign judges rule on certain Maldivian cases, which I think could be a great solution if implemented via an appropriate framework. The frequency of claims submitted to UN Working Groups also demonstrates that most people have more faith in external institutions that are guaranteed to rule independently on their matters.
HSA: The European Union recently approved sanctions against public officials responsible for human-rights violations. What do the sanctions look like and what do you think would be their effect on the government?
MM: The EU has consistently criticised the disruptions to the rule of law, lack of political dialogue, and the Maldives’ appalling human-rights record.
After several European Parliament resolutions on imposing restrictive measures against Maldivian public officials, the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU adopted a framework to implement targeted sanctions, finally putting the regime in a really tight corner internationally. The framework paves the way for the EU to impose targeted sanctions against public officials, entities and institutions implicated in severe human-rights violations in the country. It would mostly be in the form of travel bans and freezing of assets.
Many government officials have tried to falsely characterise this move as the EU sanctioning the Maldives as a whole, as opposed to restrictive measures primarily affecting public officials, entities and bodies enabling the obstruction of the rule of law. The government has consistently resisted the EU’s scrutiny of human-rights abuse and grand theft, depicting it as pressure stemming solely from the lack of religious freedom and LGBTQI rights.
The EU regulation would cause a domino effect as it encourages non-member states to adopt similar measures. The US, India and Singapore could also impose these targeted sanctions. A senior MP from the ruling party was refused entry into India, and though the Indian government has not confirmed the reason, it’s not India’s policy to publicise such actions. The US has its Magnitsky Act, which could also be used against Maldivian public officials. The Magnitsky Act was prompted by Sergei Magnitsky’s death, followed by The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act passed in 2016, enabling global coverage against gross violators of human rights and perpetrators of grand corruption.
President Yameen has petulantly claimed EU sanctions wouldn’t affect him. I’m sure he’s well aware that that is not the case in this globalised economy, where many of his regime officials have properties, businesses, assets, homes and children studying or working in countries that are likely to impose sanctions. It would also deter organisations and other legal entities in the EU zone from having links with the Maldivian government and its associates. The regime would be in a tough position when promoting tourism overseas as well.
Many businessmen have warned the government that the sanctions can have a massive impact on the tourism industry, and, in turn, on the Maldivian economy, which heavily relies on it to generate foreign exchange revenues and employment.
HSA: The Maldives seems impervious to international pressure. How can the international community help, if at all, in urging the country to restore democratic rights?
MM: Sanctions seem to be the only language the government understands. The first democratic elections in 2008 were made more inclusive through the threat of sanctions. The government legislated its first anti-human trafficking laws to evade the risk of US sanctions.
Since the EU has rolled out a plan for imposing sanctions, it’d be in the best interest of Maldivian democracy for other states to adopt similar restrictive measures against public officials abusing human rights and the businesses that enable them.
HSA: What steps need to be taken before the elections to make the process democratic?
MM: The pre-election environment needs a complete turnabout, starting with the recomposition of the EC, which is currently stacked with regime loyalists, including its chief who was seen campaigning for President Yameen’s 2013 presidential bid.
Opposition leaders and political detainees, including peaceful protesters from May Day 2015, must be immediately freed and able to engage in political activities before campaigning begins officially. The problematic 16-point guideline that contradicts the Maldives’ existing electoral laws should also be repealed.
All political parties and their supporters must ensure that voters are not trapped in the EC’s revolving doors of rules on re-registration that are designed to exclude voters. Civil society also has a crucial role to play in voter education concerning issues such as vote rigging and buying. We are monitoring election-related political violence and hate speech as well, as it tends to increase leading up to the elections. Without these important changes, it would be extremely challenging to vote-out a strongman with the type of naked ambition as that of Yameen’s.
HSA: Can you tell us about the Maldivian Democracy Network?
MM: MDN was formed in 2004 and registered in June 2006, as a non-partisan NGO that aims to promote human rights, and the values and principles of democracy in the Maldives. It undertakes a wide range of activities under its mandate, including research, awareness raising, reporting, lobbying and advocacy. We primarily work in the areas of monitoring the Parliament and the judiciary, freedoms of expression and assembly, police reforms and the documentation of torture, the protection of human-rights defenders, deradicalisation and human-rights education.
The government views our work to promote human rights and democracy as being controversial. Many on social media platforms continue to label MDN and its employees as anti-Islamic proxies. We received threats of disappearance both online and on the streets of Malé after publishing an investigative report following the enforced disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan in 2014.
Our criticism of severely flawed trials, the campaign against the resumption of executions in the Maldives, and the countering of extremist religious narratives have resulted in threats from violent groups.
Instead of thoroughly investigating threats against bloggers, journalists and human-rights defenders, the Maldivian police tends to sweep these claims under the carpet, giving full impunity to perpetrators. It adds insult to injury by starting politically motivated investigations against people at risk of violence when it should be providing security for the victims. Instead, the authorities go to great lengths to manipulate the investigations and justice system so that criminals go unpunished and free.
~ Mushfiq Mohamed is a senior legal officer with the Maldivian Democracy Network, an organisation promoting human rights and democracy in the archipelago.