Supreme Court renders human rights watchdog toothless

The Supreme Court has declared a rights assessment submitted to the UN by the human rights watchdog as unlawful, and has issued an 11-point guideline barring the independent body from communicating with foreign organizations without government oversight.

Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed delivered a verdict today, eight months after the apex court charged the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) with treason.

He said the September 2014 report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council was biased, encouraged terrorists and undermined judicial independence in the Maldives.

In the report, the HRCM had said the Supreme Court controlled and influenced the lower courts to the detriment of the Maldivian judiciary.

Days after the report was publicised, the Supreme Court brought charges against the HRCM under controversial suomoto regulations that allow the apex court to prosecute and pass judgment.

The case had remained stalled after just two hearings.

The 11-point guideline issued today orders the HRCM to protect unity, peace and order, and uphold Maldivian norms, faith, etiquette and the rule of law.

The Supreme Court said the HRCM must not overstep its mandate and ordered the independent body to cooperate with government institutions, communicate with foreign bodies through the relevant government institutions, and protect the Maldives’ reputation.

The written verdict was not available at the time of going to press.

In March last year, the apex court sacked the Election Commission’s president and vice-president when they criticised a 16-point electoral guideline issued by the Supreme Court after annulling the first round of presidential elections in September 2013.

Judicial control

The HRCM’s two-page report submitted to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) said: “The judicial system is controlled and influenced by the Supreme Court, weakening judicial powers vested in other superior courts and lower courts.”

The UPR studies the human rights record of all 193 UN member states and is aimed at supporting and expanding the protection of human rights.

The Maldives was first reviewed in 2010 and underwent a second inspection in May.

During the review in Geneva, countries across the world blasted the Maldives for the ‘politicisation of the judiciary’ and raised concern over the Supreme Court’s prosecution of the HRCM.

Several countries then recommended that the Maldives ensure impartiality and independence of the judiciary and provide training to judges.

The foreign ministry has deferred accepting or rejecting the recommendations, pending “national level consultation.” A decision will be communicated before the 30th session of the human rights council in September or October 2015.

Trial summary

At the second hearing on September 30, 2014, the HRCM had denied charges and said that the commission’s observations on the judiciary were based on reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers Gabriela Knaul, the International Commission of Jurists and the national chapter of Transparency International.

Then-Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz said the judiciary had rejected Knaul’s report as invalid and reprimanded the HRCM for alleged failure to consult the Supreme Court in writing the UPR submission.

Faiz and Judge Muthasim Adnan were removed from the seven-member bench in December.

The HRCM in March said the Supreme Court’s suomoto case was the biggest challenge the watchdog has faced in its 11-year history.

The HRCM Act grants members immunity from prosecution in relation to acts carried out as part of the commission’s duties.

Today’s ruling comes as the parliament prepares to appoint three new members to the HRCM as the five-year terms of three members are due to expire in August.

The three members are HRCM president Mariyam Azra, vice-president Ahmed Tholal and member Jeehan Mahmood.

President Abdulla Yameen has nominated a former ruling party MP to the position. The opposition has accused the president of stacking independent commissions through the ruling-party controlled parliament.


19-year-old man stabbed to death in sixth murder in 2015

A 19-year-old victim of an assault in Addu City last night died this morning while undergoing treatment for injuries.

Local media has identified the deceased as Hussain Shiar from the Atheena house in the Hithadhoo ward. He was stabbed in the back and the head.

A police media official said the assault victim passed away around 10:45am. He was being treated at the intensive care unit of the Hithadhoo regional hospital.

The media official said the hospital had reported the assault to police.

No arrests have been made yet. According to local media, Shiar was attacked by masked men who entered his home around 11:00pm last night.

But the police media official said the assault occurred on the street.

In November last year, masked men forcibly entered a home in the Maradhoo ward of Addu City and assaulted a father and son. The incident followed the arrest of a 23-year-old from Maradhoo on suspicion of attacking a 34-year-old with a machete the previous night.

Shiar’s fatal stabbing meanwhile marks the sixth murder this year.

In late March, the police launched a joint security operation with the army following the the murder of a 29-year-old man in Malé.

Police officers and soldiers began patrolling the streets of the capital, checking vehicles, and stopping and searching individuals in an effort to curb gang violence.

A 23-year-old was stabbed to death outside his home in the Henveiru ward of Malé on February 21, whilst a 29-year-old was killed in Laamu Mundoo on March 20.

Two were Bangladeshis also murdered and four expatriates stabbed in a spike in violence against expatriates in March.


First resort under luxury brand St. Regis to open in 2016

International hotel developer Starwood Hotels and Resorts has announced the opening of the Maldives’ first resort under its luxury brand world St. Regis next year.

The new resort  is being developed in Dhaa Atoll Vommuli Island, a 40-minute seaplane ride away from the capital Malé, by the Chennai-based Appaaswamy Group

Starwood Hotels currently operates the W Retreat & Spa and Sheraton Full Moon Resort & Spa.

The new Vommuli Resort will feature 77 luxurious private villas, a spa with six private treatment rooms, an infinity swimming pool, and a state of the art fitness centre along with a dive and activity center.

“This signing further fuels Starwood’s strong growth momentum in South Asia, where we continue to see strong demand for high-end hotel accommodations,” said Sudeep Jain – Starwood’s Vice President of Acquisitions and Development.

“The upcoming arrival of the St. Regis brand in the Maldives underpins our commitment to Starwood’s luxury portfolio in this dynamic market.”

The St. Regis brand operates more than 30 hotels and resorts around the world.

“We are pleased to partner with Starwood to bring this hotel to life: marrying the bespoke service of the St. Regis brand with the ‘barefoot luxury’ mentality of the Maldives,” said Ravi Appasamy Managing Director of Residency Resorts Male Private Limited.

“The brand’s allure, coupled with Starwood’s powerful loyalty program, is sure to entice affluent travelers to visit this enchanting destination.”


Former President Nasheed appeals for clemency

Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s lawyers have appealed to President Abdulla Yameen to reduce the 13-year jail sentence of the opposition leader.

In a letter sent to the president yesterday, lawyer Hassan Latheef noted that the clemency law gives the president the “full power and discretion” to reduce the sentence.

“The president has the discretion, on the president’s own initiative, to commute the sentence of a person convicted of a criminal offence, based on their age, health, treatment they are currently undergoing, their status and circumstance, or from a humanitarian perspective,” reads article 29(c) of the Clemency Act.

President’s office spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz Ali told Minivan News that the office attends to letters in accordance with procedures and declined to comment on whether President Yameen would consider the appeal.

Despite the lapse of a 10-day deadline for filing appeals, the prosecutor general and the government have insisted that Nasheed could still appeal at the High Court. President Yameen has maintained that he does not have constitutional authority to pardon convicts before the appeal process is exhausted.

Nasheed was found guilty of terrorism on March 13 over the military’s detention of criminal court chief judge Abdulla Mohamed in January 2012. The former president’s conviction drew widespread international criticism over the apparent lack of due process in the 19-day trial.

Latheef contended that Nasheed was denied the right to a fair trial as guaranteed by both domestic law and the Maldives’ obligations under international conventions.

The former human resources minister noted that foreign governments, international human rights organisations, and the UN have condemned the trial.

Amnesty International called the conviction a “travesty of justice” while the UN human rights chief said Nasheed was sentenced after a “hasty and apparently unfair trial” and noted “flagrant irregularities.”

The UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers noted “serious due process violations” such as denial of the opportunity to present defence witnesses, which led her to believe “the outcome of the trial may have been pre-determined.”

The European parliament in April adopted a resolution condemning the “serious irregularities” of Nasheed’s terrorism trial while US secretary of state John Kerry said during a visit to Sri Lanka that Nasheed was “imprisoned without due process”.

“This is an injustice that needs to be addressed soon,” he said.

Last week, US senators John McCain and Jack Reed urged their government to press for the release of all political prisoners in the Maldives.


Major criminal cases stalled over failure to summon witnesses

Prosecution in a major drug bust and a murder case was stalled this month because of the state’s failure to summon witnesses.

The criminal court on Monday cancelled a hearing in the trial of two Maldivians arrested in a 24kg heroin bust after witnesses could not be summoned.

On May 26, the court cancelled hearings into the murder of 25-year-old Ahmed Mirza. Chief judge Abdulla Mohamed said the court had issued three warrants to summon a key witness, but police were unable to do so. The judge said the trial could not proceed without the testimony.

Mirza was assaulted with iron rods in April 2011 and died of severe head injuries. The four suspects arrested in the case have been held in police custody since 2011.

Over 30 people have died in the Maldives in the past seven years from violent crimes and gang-related assaults.

The witness in Mirza’s case was brought to court earlier this month.

Some 18 suspects were meanwhile arrested in the drug haul in February 2014, including 11 Pakistanis, and three Bangladeshis, but the prosecutor general’s (PG) office decided to press charges against only two suspects.

The foreigners were all released by the criminal court or deported.

The police said at the time that the 24kg of heroin was “the largest amount of drugs seized in a police operation conducted in the Maldives so far.” The estimated street value of the drugs was US$6.5 million.

Witness protection

The PG office has blamed the witnesses’ reluctance to testify on the state’s failure to protect witnesses.

“In most cases the witnesses are reluctant to give statements because they are so easily identified. And the state is incapable to provide witness protection,” public prosecutor Hisham Wajeeh said.

Hisham said witnesses could also be identified from their testimony.

“It is especially difficult to hide the witnesses because they can be so easily identified from how they give statements in court. For example, a witness may be identified from the angle he saw the murder,” he said.

But the most troubling issue is when the names of witnesses are leaked, he added.

“We guarantee that witnesses will not be identified from us. But it happens. There has to be people responsible for that and it is a big setback for the system,” Hisham said.

The police meanwhile said witnesses are brought to court in accordance with procedure.

“We cannot comment on any specific issues because it involves witnesses,” a police spokesperson said.

In 2011, the criminal court questioned then-public prosecutor Mahaz Ali, now a drug court judge, over the leak of a confidential testimony statement.

Mahaz told the court he saw the statement in the defence lawyer’s possession, and that the document bore the criminal court’s seal.

The case related to four men accused of possessing dangerous weapons.

Flaws in the criminal justice system have been blamed for the lack of convictions for murder. In most cases, suspects were convicted of murder based on confessions.

In some cases, judges are also changed halfway through the trial.

On June 4, the murder case of 16-year-old Mohamed Arham was transferred from judge Muhthaz Fahmy to judge Abdulla Didi.

Arham was stabbed to death in May 2012. The case had nearly reached completion when the judge was changed.

Judge Didi subsequently released one of the four defendants from police custody.

Arham, a grade nine student at the Dharumavantha School, was found dead in the Lorenzo park in Malé on May 30, 2012. He died of multiple stab wounds to the neck, back, and chest.

The trial began in November 2012.

Judge Didi was among the three-judge panel that sentenced former President Mohamed Nasheed and former defence minister Mohamed Nazim to 13 years and 11 years in jail, respectively, following rushed trials widely criticised over apparent lack of due process.

Earlier this month, the criminal court threatened to throw out the case of a man accused of stabbing an individual after the state failed to appoint a lawyer. He was arrested in November 2013.

Meanwhile, the chief suspect in the murder of Mariyam Sheereen in January 2010 was found not guilty in May.

Almost five years after the murder trial began, chief judge Abdulla Mohamed said in the verdict that the state had failed to submit conclusive evidence.


Five staff arrested from Shangri-La Villingili for alleged theft

Five employees from Shangri-La Villigili have been arrested on suspicion of stealing from the luxury resort’s jewellery store.

The suspects were brought to the capital from the southernmost atoll yesterday, local media reported, and the criminal court has extended their remand detention to 15 days.

According to the resort, the suspects broke a glass window of the shop and stole a large amount of expensive jewelry. All suspects are Maldivian.

The police are also investigating the alleged theft of $68,000 by a Shangri-La employee working at the finance section.


Bangladeshi woman arrested on prostitution charges

A Bangladeshi woman was arrested from a residence in Malé around 8:00pm last night on charges of prostitution.

Three Bangladeshi men were also arrested after police officers raided Machangoalhi Zeefiyaz based on intelligence information.

The suspects were engaged in prostitution when officers entered the residence, the police said in a statement. Some of the men are suspected of being the woman’s agents.

The police also searched a room in the house and found cash in local and foreign currencies as well as unspecified “items used for sexual activities.”

Last night’s raid follows the arrest of eight suspects, including three foreign women, four foreign men, and one Maldivian man, from a brothel in Malé last week.


Amendments propose registering plots smaller than 600 square feet

The parliament has accepted for consideration amendments proposed to the land law to allow registration of plots of land smaller than 600 square feet.

Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MP Riyaz Rasheed’s amendment bill was accepted unanimously with 56 votes in favour at today’s sitting of parliament and sent to committee for further review.

Under the current law, plots of land smaller than 600 feet cannot be separately registered.

In cases where children inherit a small parcel of land upon division of a parent’s property, Riyaz said the new owners were unable to obtain loans or mortgage the property as it was not registered under their names.

During today’s debate, most MPs favoured the proposed changes, noting that the problem was especially acute in the congested capital.

Meanwhile, amendments proposed to the Decentralisation Act by main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party MP Rozaina Adam to change the eligibility criteria for local council candidates was rejected with 40 votes against and 21 votes in favour.

Rozaina proposed allowing individuals who have been convicted for a criminal offence to contest elections five years after serving the sentence. Under the current law, a person convicted of a crime with a punishment specified in Islam, drug abuse or trafficking, or bribery cannot contest in elections for island, atoll, or city councils.

During the debate on the amendments at today’s sitting, several MPs noted that individuals convicted of crimes can contest in parliamentary elections five years after serving their sentence. A harsher criteria for council candidates is unfair, the MPs argued.


Diplomatic pressure ramps up on Maldives

The Canadian government and the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) have called for international action to secure the release of “political prisoners” in the Maldives.

Canada called on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to “urgently put the deteriorating situation in the Maldives on its formal agenda,” while the ACHR called on the the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to adopt a resolution demanding the “unconditional release of all political prisoners” in the Maldives, including former President Mohamed Nasheed and former defence minister Mohamed Nazim.

The ACHR has special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council and provides information and complaints to national human rights institutions and the United Nations bodies and mechanisms.

The organization also called on the UNHRC to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Maldives and to make a recommendation to the UN General Assembly to suspend the Maldives from the Human Rights Council.

The European parliament in April adopted a resolution condemning the “serious irregularities” of Nasheed’s terrorism trial while US secretary of state John Kerry said during a visit to Sri Lanka that Nasheed was “imprisoned without due process”.

“This is an injustice that needs to be addressed soon,” he said.

Last week, US senators John McCain and Jack Reed urged their government to press for the release of all political prisoners in the Maldives.

Commonwealth values

Canada also called on the Maldivian government to release jailed opposition politicians.

“On June 12, protestors gathered in the Maldives capital, Malé, to call for the release of political prisoners,‎ an independent judiciary, an end to politically motivated charges, and respect for freedom of expression and fundamental democratic values,” Canadian foreign minister Rob Nicholson said in a statement yesterday.

“Canada strongly supports these objectives, which are consistent with Commonwealth values and principles as set out in the Charter of the Commonwealth.”

In March, foreign minister Dunya Maumoon slammed alleged attempts to place the Maldives on the CMAG agenda over Nasheed’s terrorism trial.

Former foreign minister and UN Special Rapporteur on Iran Dr Ahmed Shaheed said Canada’s call shows “that countries in the commonwealth care about the Maldives.”

Suspension from UNHRC

The 29th session of the UNHRC is taking place from June 15 to July 3 in Geneva, Switzerland. The inter-governmental body is comprised of 47 member states and meets for 10 weeks every year, in March, June and September.

The Maldives was first elected to the council in 2010 and re-elected for a second term in November 2013.

The prosecution and imprisonment of political opponents constitute “gross and systematic violations of human rights” as provided under the General Assembly resolution establishing the Human Rights Council and justifies the proposed measures, the ACHR said in a statement yesterday.

As the European parliament has adopted a resolution calling for Nasheed’s release, the ACHR suggested that European Union members on the council should sponsor the resolution.

The foreign ministry said yesterday that the Maldives delegation will focus on “issues of priorities such as women’s rights, children’s rights, climate change, rule of law, among others.”

“Trumped up charges”

The ACHR meanwhile accused President Abdulla Yameen of jailing political opponents under “trumped up charges” to bar rivals from contesting the 2018 presidential election.

“While key democratic leaders have been put behind bars under terrorism charges, President Yameen has taken little or no measures to counter real terrorists: over 200 Maldivians are currently fighting for Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria with at least four of them having died in the fighting,” the ACHR claimed.

The judiciary remains unreformed since the 30-year autocratic reign of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the ACHR continued, and currently serves as the “handmaiden” of President Yameen – “a replica of the rule by the Rajapaksa brothers which ended in neighbouring Sri Lanka in January 2015.”

Adhaalath Party president Sheikh Imran Abdulla, Jumhooree Party (JP) deputy leader Ameen Ibrahim, and JP council member Sobah Rasheed have also been charged with terrorism and accused of inciting violence at a mass protest on May 1.

The terrorism charges cast doubt on the government’s sincerity in calling for talks with opposition parties, the ACHR suggested.

The organisation noted that Nasheed’s conviction on terrorism charges in March after a 19-day trial was widely criticised over apparent lack of due process.

Amnesty International called the conviction a “travesty of justice” while the UN human rights chief said Nasheed was sentenced after a “hasty and apparently unfair trial” and noted “flagrant irregularities.”

The UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers noted “serious due process violations” such as denial of the opportunity to present defence witnesses, which led her to believe “the outcome of the trial may have been pre-determined.”