Democracy-deficit in the Maldives

An oddly large number of the names of decidedly undemocratic states start with 'Democratic Republic'. Perhaps it is less surprising, then, that the proposal for a SAARC Centre for Human Rights at the recently concluded 13th SAARC summit came from the longest-serving authoritarian of Asia, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives. According to the president, "such a centre, based on civil society, could promote international standards, facilitate cooperation among lawyers and jurists, and share expertise and resources and advocacy of human rights and democracy in the South Asian region". This is a fantastic idea, particularly for a region where democracy is in a state of flux and the democracy-deficit is omnipresent. But President Gayoom does not have the credibility to sell it.

In the light of increasing international criticism, on 14 March 2005, Gayoom unveiled much-vaunted proposals for both political and constitutional reforms in the Maldives, with a deadline of one year. He followed that up by allowing for registration of political parties, beginning 5 June 2005. However, repression has since begun in earnest and the reform efforts have stalled (see also accompanying opinion piece pp 97). Most significantly, political parties have not been allowed to carry out their activities. Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed warned the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on 1 November 2005 that "inciting rebellion" through "peaceful disobedience" was an "offence" that could result in prison time.

Alleged confession
Shaheed's threats of repression had already been borne out by the events of 18 October 2005, when Jennifer Latheef, daughter of MDP spokesperson Mohammed Latheef and a MDP councilor, was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for alleged terrorist offences. She was charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for inciting violence in the civil unrest in Male in September 2003, which had followed the murder of four prisoners by guards in Maafushi Prison.

The 'terrorist' offence said to have been committed by Latheef rested on a claim by a police officer that she had hit him in the shin with a stone. Of the seven witnesses against Latheef, six were fellow police officers, whose statements were reportedly contradictory. If stone-throwing was to be considered a terrorist offence, the jails of the rest of Southasia would be full of incarcerated terrorists.

The judge, however, ignored the inconsistencies in the statements given by the state's witnesses to the police as well as in the court. Given the "lapse of time" between police statements and the court hearing, the judge considered the contradictions insignificant, while simultaneously ignoring vital defence arguments that had sought to discredit both evidence and witnesses.

Jennifer Latheef was ultimately sentenced based on her alleged confession to the police, and on the basis of photographs taken of her by anonymous lensmen. A decision based on this evidence was clearly in violation of the norms and practices of international law. The pictures did not establish the time, place or event, and showed Latheef doing nothing incriminating. Additionally, confessional statements are considered inadmissible for they can be recorded under duress.

At the time of writing, Latheef still had not received a written judgment from the court, effectively denying her right to appeal. Other defendants in the September 2003 unrest case – Abdulla Alexander, Abdulla Shabir, and Ahmad Moosa – have also been brought up on terrorism charges and sentenced to 11 years in jail while Ikleel Ibrahim was given a ten year sentence.

Such trumped up terrorism charges, which have served as handy tools for repressive regimes around the world, are being employed by Gayoom's regime to destroy peaceful and democratic dissent. Invoking such charges serves a dual purpose for the government. First, potential threat is silenced. Second, any criticism can be warded off simply by stating that the accused are being tried and sentenced by a competent and independent judge.

On 30 November, MDP President Mohammed Nausheed appeared in court in Male, only to hear that his house arrest had been extended for an additional 30 days. The prosecution has accused Nausheed of instigating others to throw petrol bombs and to cut iron rods for use as weapons during street protests. However, no one else has been arrested for these offences; there is no evidence linking Nausheed to either of these acts; and the prosecution has failed to provide his lawyer with the chargesheet. At the hearing, the court reportedly warned him that if he engaged in any political activity while under house arrest, he would be immediately sent back to the Dhoonidhoo Island Detention Centre. It was following intense international pressure that the government put off his trial, and transferred him to house arrest.

Indeed, it was President Gayoom's nephew, Maumoon Hameed, who led the National Security Services investigation into Nausheed's alleged acts of sedition and terrorism. Since then, Hameed has been transferred to the Attorney General's office, in order to take a lead in the prosecution efforts against the defendent. Many now fear that the president may make his nephew a judge in the cases against Nausheed and other opposition leaders.

Gagging media
There is no free media in the Maldives. On 13 October 2005, Colonel Mohamed Nasheed, a leading columnist with the newspaper, Minivan News, was arrested hours before he was due to speak at an MDP rally. That afternoon, Nasheed received a police summons about "a matter that is being investigated." Upon his appearance at the police station, he was transported to Dhoonidhoo, having received no further details about his arrest. After serving three weeks at Dhoonidhoo, he was transferred to house arrest in Male. A second journalist working with Minivan News was arrested the same day as Nasheed. Abdulla Saeed (Fahala), who was taken into custody under similar circumstances, has since been reported by state-owned Television Maldives and Voice of Maldives as possessing drugs at the time of his arrest.

Aminath Najeeb, the editor of the recently registered  Minivan News (meaning 'independent') was twice detained by police for an article that appeared in his paper about a protest rally. The article in question included comments by an MDP member, Ahmed Abbas, stating: "What we should do to those in the Star Force [police] who beat us, is to seek them out individually and for us to act in such a manner that makes them feel that beatings result in pain, otherwise they will not be subdued."

Earlier on 17 June, two Maldivian journalists, traveling home to Male from Colombo on board a midnight flight, were questioned by the police upon arrival at the Male International Airport. The police seized a compilation on how to form political parties prepared by the MDP based on a booklet prepared by the National Democratic Institute in Washington DC.

The Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) had been thought of as providing a ray of hope, playing a critical role despite its weak mandate. In its bid to further weaken the weak, Gayoom's regime introduced amendments to the HRCM laws in July 2005. The new legislation keeps the security forces out of the purview of the HRCM's investigation process; limits the commission's investigative powers; and renders it much more cumbersome by increasing the number of its members from nine to 14. The amendments seem designed to specifically target the chair of the Commission by limiting his powers and functions through expansion of the members on one hand and contracting the jurisdiction  on the other.

Despite vehement opposition by the HRCM, President Gayoom's rubber stamp, the Peoples' Majlis, successfully passed the bill. Reportedly no longer able to perform his duties independently, the Commissioner resigned in September. The lack of national human rights mechanisms subsequently now demand Southasian sub-regional initiatives to address gross violations in the Maldives.

President Gayoom needs to begin to undertake visible reform measures, provide freedom to political parties for democratic activities, and release all political detainees. If he does not do so, the demand for international sanctions – including a visa ban on President Gayoom and his cabinet ministers, a freeze on their assets in foreign countries, and a ban on technical and economic assistance – should be recommended. After all, such repression of political opponents is little different from that being perpetrated by the military junta in Burma or by King Gyanendra in Nepal. That it is the judiciary which sentences political activists in the Maldives, makes little difference. For all practical and legal purposes, President Gayoom is the Maldives' judge and jury.

~ Suhas Chakma is the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights in New Delhi.

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