The current stand off between the government and the opposition on how to secure the independence of the judiciary is hampering the much needed reform of the country’s criminal justice system.
Neither the government, nor the parliament or the judiciary can take pride in maintaining an outdated justice system that lacks a codified body of laws capable of providing justice equally to all.
Current laws are mainly remnants of acts of parliament passed at the time of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom when the country’s legal system was even less developed and more prone to political influence. Laws also include religious injunctions, regulations passed by ministries, some acts of parliament passed in recent years, and the 2008 Constitution. Even so, these laws cover penal areas only partially. Some are too vaguely formulated to prevent miscarriages of justice.
Most judges have no formal training in law but exercise considerable discretion – often based on their own interpretation of religious law – in deciding what constitutes an offence and the punishment for it.
In such a milieu, judicial decisions could be at risk of the judges’ personal or political preferences especially when these relate to complaints by the government or the opposition. One potential remedy for this problem would be to hold judicial personnel strictly accountable for any misconduct, but the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) appears unable to ensure this type of accountability.
So far, the government and the opposition-dominated parliament have failed to address these shortcomings. They have not even, as a first step, enacted a penal code that can reflect Maldives obligations under the international human rights treaties the country has ratified. A draft penal code intended to do this has remained dormant in parliament for at least four years.
While the government and the opposition blame each other for these failures, people whose rights are being violated are at risk of receiving unfair trials.
Respect for human rights has been further undermined by recent arbitrary arrest of Abdulla Mohamed, the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court.
He was arrested on 16 January. His arrest followed a civil court injunction on 27 November that blocked the JSC’s probe into Judge Abdullah’s alleged judicial misconduct. The Judicial Service Commission began this investigation in 2009 after receiving a complaint from the government. JSC found that judge Abdullah was guilty of violating the Judges’ Code of Conduct for making politically contentious statements on a local TV Channel. At this point, judge Abdullah successfully applied to the Civil Court for an injunction against further investigation or any actions against him. By granting that injunction, the Civil Court exposed the judiciary to further allegations from the government that Judge Abdullah can effectively remain in office with no accountability. The government then instructed the police to investigate the allegations against Judge Abdullah. Police went to arrest him but judge Abdullah refused to go with them, saying they had no warrant of arrest. The government then sent the army, still without a warrant of arrest, and he was taken into army custody on 16 January.
Regardless of the allegations against Judge Abdullah, his continued detention since 16 January remains arbitrary. The Maldives Human Rights Commission has confirmed that he is treated well and is allowed access to his family. Amnesty International is calling on the government to either bring formal criminal charges against him or release him.
Amnesty International has no position on the validity or otherwise of the allegations against judge Abdullah. It is for the judiciary to ensure that a mechanism exists to uphold accountability in any case of alleged judicial misconduct.
Sadly, all sides in the debate about the independence and impartiality of the judiciary tailor their arguments only to their own, narrow political ends. What they are missing is the opportunity to turn the Maldives into a hub of respect for human rights where the government, the parliament and the judiciary work alongside each other to strengthen the rule of law.
Abbas Faiz is South Asia Researcher with Amnesty International.
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