Civil Court protects ballot secrecy in JSC lawyer election

The Civil Court has ruled against setting up polling mechanisms on every inhabited island to elect a representative from the legal community to the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), arguing the move would violate the secrecy of the ballot.

A regulation compiled by Attorney General (AG) Mohamed Anil states ballot boxes can only be placed in islands where more than five lawyers are registered to vote. However, Gaaf Dhaal Fiyori Island Magistrate Abdul Razzak Mohamed asked the court to annul the requirement and asked for a voting mechanism to be established on every island.

An estimated 700 lawyers are eligible to vote in the election. These include 136 magistrates stationed throughout the Maldives.

Judge Ali Rasheed Hussein on Tuesday said the regulations require the vote to be by secret ballot and said voting mechanisms on every island, where only one lawyer casts the vote, would compromise secrecy.

Mohamed had lodged the complaint a day ahead of polls on July 13. Subsequently, the Civil Court issued an injunction delaying the vote.

Former Deputy Prosecutor General and JSC candidate Hussein Shameem who has long criticised judicial interference in the election has welcomed the Civil Court verdict.

“The verdict yesterday proves the Fiyori magistrate had no case. He has caused an undue delay to the process. An election involves the rights of a group of people, not just one individual. I hope the courts consider this in the future and that there are no more delays,” he said.

The Attorney General’s Office has said a new poll date will be announced in August.

Despite ruling against polling systems on every island, the Civil Court said the AG had contravened procedures in the voter registration process. The regulations state eligible voters must be given a four day period for registration once polling date is announced.

However, the call for registration came before the finalised voter list was published, the ruling said.

Magistrate Mohamed did not attend the hearing. But Judge Hussein delivered the ruling in absentia on the wishes of the AG’s office. Judges are authorised to throw out complaints if the complainant fails to attend a hearing.

Four candidates are contesting in the vote. They are Hussein Shameem, Anas Abdul Sattar, Mohamed Faisal, and Latheefa Qasim.

Lawyer Mohamed Fareed withdrew his name on July 10, expressing concern over judicial interference in the election following the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing all licensed lawyers, including sitting MPs and judges, to vote in the election.

“The belief that an election in the Maldives may proceed without Supreme Court interference is against the facts, reality. This is the reality now,” he said at a press conference.

Had voting mechanisms been set up on every island, magistrates would have been forced to vote for the judiciary-backed candidate Latheefa Qasim, he suggested.

Latheefa is a public relations staff at the Department of Judicial Administration and served on the JSC for a year as former President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s appointee to the commission. Latheefa did not respond to calls at the time of press.

Meanwhile, former AG Husnu Suood has accused businessmen and judges of influencing the JSC lawyer election, suggesting Latheefa is backed by Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim.

“We have to do a lot to protect the integrity and independence of the legal profession. We, lawyers, can only uphold independence and integrity of the legal profession if we minimise the influence of judges and businessmen in such elections. I think businessmen actively influencing and actively campaigning for individuals who stand for the election obstructs the independence of both the judiciary and the legal profession,” he said.

Suood has also accused the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives of attempting to fix the composition of the new JSC.

Although he is skeptical of reform through the commission, Suood urged lawyers to back Shameem in order to ensure transparency within the JSC.

“If there is a single effective candidate, I believe they can give us information and work to make the JSC more transparent. There is a huge difference between one person being there and none being there,” he said.