This article first appeared on Dhivehi Sitee. Republished with permission.
Judicial independence is generally accepted to be a protection from the government or the legislative majority. If rulers are to be controlled, then, rule of law—which checks their power—must remain immune to their influence. But that raises the question: who checks the independence of the judiciary? Checkers being unchecked is an inherent weakness in the role attributed to rule of law in democratic theory.
There are limits, but they are easy to overcome.
One such limit on judicial power is the law. As MDP’s presidential candidate Mohamed Nasheed said on Saturday, judges speak the law, they do not make it. The role of the unelected judiciary is to execute the law enacted according to the will of the elected parliament. But the opportunity to override this limitation is frequently open to the judiciary. When laws are ambiguous, for example, it is the judges who interpret them, and this interpretation comes close to legislation. Precedents are set that must be followed, law-like.
Another restriction on judicial power is the principles of justice: if rule of law is inseparable from a political theory of rights, it means that judges must not only enforce laws, but must also be guided by certain judicial principles. But there are no mechanisms to ensure that such principles are adhered to—they can be easily ignored in the ‘right’ political and social environment as can be seen from the behaviour of the Maldives Supreme Court examined below.
The third restriction on judicial power is administrative—internal checks on the checkers. These include the hierarchy of courts—one court above checking the one below; ethical and professional requirements that should stop just anyone becoming a judge; and disciplinary action and legal liability that stops judges from straying the course. But who enforces these checks? The checkers themselves. In the Maldives, it is the responsibility of the Judicial Service Commission, which is under tight control of certain members of the judiciary.
In a democracy, judges are ‘protected, unchecked, and unaccountable’, and ‘we do not know why the judiciary would be politically impartial and neutral’. Often, therefore—especially, but not always, in consolidating democracies—rule of law becomes an instrument of political power.
For politicians both in government and opposition who are looking for allies to help them achieve their goals, judges—’unchecked agents whose decisions are binding’—are an attractive prospect that cannot be ignored. Over the years, several strategies have become common place: 1) politicians using democracy to subordinate the judiciary and overcome the limits set by rule of law; and 2) politicians using existing norms and independent judges to undermine democracy as a regime; and 3) although democracy is preserved, the independence of judges is turned into a political instrument to get rid of an opponent if the rules of democratic competition are not enough.
The Supreme Court as a political weapon to undermine democracy
The 2008 Constitution of the Maldives, based on democratic principles, envisions an ideal world where democracy and an independent judiciary co-exist in harmony and support each other. In reality, this is hard to achieve not just in the Maldives but in most newly democratising countries. In three years of democracy, Maldives did not come even close to the ideal. The judiciary left behind by the authoritarian regime, and which remained mostly unchanged after the assumption of democratic governance, has constantly been used by politicians as a political weapon—most often as a strategy for 1) undermining democracy as a regime, and 2) to get rid of an opponent while preserving the façade of a democracy. The role of the judiciary in the downfall of the Maldivian democracy in February 2012, and in the authoritarian reversal that has followed, is by now well documented. Its current role is to prevent the restoration of democracy. To execute the strategy, anti-democratic politicians have adopted a majority of the Supreme Court bench as their main instrument.
On 7 October 2013, just before midnight, the Supreme Court issued a majority ruling making void the first round of the second democratic election in the Maldives. The election was held on 7 September 2013 and was widely heralded as free, fair and virtually free of error. Initially, only Jumhooree Party (JP), led by tourism magnate, Qasim Ibrahim, disagreed. He filed a case at the High Court on 11 September (01/SH-I-HC/2013) alleging that the Eligible Voters Registry used in the election included ‘hundreds of ineligible voters, several repeated voters’ and ‘several thousand voters’ whose addresses were problematic. JP wanted the court to allow it access to the Eligible Voter Registry. The High Court ruled in JP’s favour, ordering that JP and other contestants in the election be allowed to see the list.
But, before the High Court ruling (on 17 September), JP filed a new case at the Supreme Court on 15 September (42/C-SC/2013), treating it as a court of first instance, rather than the apex court. The Supreme Court accepted the role it was given, and later justified it by saying that Article 113 and Article 145(c) of the Constitution states that it has the final word on any matter relating to the Constitution. There is room to contradict this interpretation of the Constitution, as outlined in the opinion of Justice Mu’thasim Adnan, one of three Supreme Court justices who dissented.
JP made three submissions:
- The presidential election on 7 September 2013 violated relevant articles of the Constitution, Elections Law and Supreme Court ruling 39/C-SC/2013 (2 September 2013). Therefore, Supreme Court must rule that it is the right of all candidates to have access to the voters list.
- The eligible voters list used for the 7 September 2013 election did not fit the required legal framework or Supreme Court ruling 39/C-SC/2013. Therefore, Supreme Court must rule that it is not a valid list.
- The election violated basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution as well as breached Constitutional provisions and laws related to elections in addition to falling outside of the state Constitutional framework. Therefore, with reference to Article 113 of the Constitution, Article 10 (b), Article 11 (a)1 and 3 of the Courts Act, the Supreme Court must rule the election as void.
The case, which lasted from 15 September to 7 October was a farce from beginning to end. Very few legal concepts and principles are left that it did not undermine.
It may as well have been written by Kafka
First, none of the Justices would be on the bench if Article 285 of the Constitution were followed. As discussed earlier, measures available in a democracy to check the checkers are limited. In the Maldives, Article 285 of the Constitution, which outlined the qualifications and professional standards of judges, was one of such limitation imposed on judicial power.
But, with the Judicial Service Commission—-constitutionally mandated to check judicial powers—at the helm,Article 285 was dismissed as symbolic, meaning that an overwhelming majority of the country’s judiciary sits in breach of the Constitution. The Supreme Court’s ‘ascension’ to the bench was doubly unconstitutional. Moreover, several of the judges on the Supreme Court bench are facing allegations of serious offences or misconduct. The main offenders are Ali Hameed, Adam Mohamed, Abdulla Saeed, and Abdulla Didi. [Theallegations against them are summed up here, on Minivan News.]
Second, most of the evidence presented in the case should not have been deemed admissible. Several witnesses were allowed to give evidence in ‘secret’, as if this was a major criminal investigation where witnesses had to be given protection in case of retaliation by a dangerous defendant. This was, as the Supreme Court was anxious to reiterate, ‘a constitutional matter’. Third, the State Attorney General entered the case to submit arguments against Elections Commission, a state institution. Media reports of the time revealed that AG Azima Shakoor did not even speak to the Elections Commission, an independent state institution, for clarification of the allegations against it before deciding to side with JP, a political party.
The four Justices, meanwhile, refused to give a fair hearing to the defendant, frequently shutting EC lawyers down in the middle of an argument, or generally disregarding their arguments and submissions. Lawyers for MDP, which like Azima Shakoor had entered the case as a third party, were ejected from the proceedings and held in contempt of court for discussing the case [more specifically the judges] in public. EC lawyer Husnu Suood was given the same treatment, forcing the Commission to find a replacement at short notice. The Supreme Court ordered a report from an ‘expert forensics team’ from the Maldives Police Service (MPS) on its own initiative, and gave them access to all election-related data and the Department of National Registration (DNR) database which holds personal information and fingerprints of the entire population.
The Supreme Court allowed the case to drag on, scheduling the case, cancelling and then rescheduling at whim. It kept odd hours, often sitting late at night, and announcing decisions after midnight. Throughout the duration of the case, Male’ was in a state of unrest as MDP members and other disenfranchised voters continued to protest in the vicinity of the Supreme Court daily. Late in the evening of 23 September, five days before the scheduled second round of the election, the Supreme Court issued an injunction calling a halt to all preparations for it. The court order, signed by the same four judges named above, gave no date on which the second round could be held, making the postponement indefinite.
On 26 September it issued another ruling (06/SC-SJ/2013) again around midnight, ordering the security forces to enforce its order to postpone the election and to halt any preparations for the second round by anyone. With this order, the Supreme Court took the responsibility of conducting the election away from the Constiutionally mandated Elections Commission (EC) and placed it firmly in the hands of the security forces.
The Maldives Police Service, led by rogue Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz, immediately descended on the EC in what amounted to a siege of the premises. Although defiant at first, and determined to hold the second round despite the Supreme Court order—which its lawyers described as unconstitutional—president of the Elections Commission Fuad Thowfeeq announced on 27 September, on the eve of the scheduled second round, that lack of co-operation from the security forces and other essential state institutions meant that the election could not go ahead.
As disenfranchised voters took to the streets with increased frustration, the Supreme Court plodded along with the case. The police were invited to work within the premises of the court, and finally, allowed to submit a ‘secret report’ which the Elections Commission, as the defendant was not allowed to see. That report, on which the Supreme Court based most of its decision to cancel the election, is still a secret. But, from what one of the dissenting judges, Justice Mu’thasim Adnan said, it contained nothing that justified annulling the first round of the election held on 7 September. [Here is another report prepared by the same ‘expert’ police team on 15 September, which gives an indication of the standard the Supreme Court’s report is most likely to be of].
After two weeks of deliberation of the above evidence, the Supreme Court reached the majority verdict to annul the first round held on 7 September. Yet again, the verdict was announced at midnight, and was accompanied by brutal ‘enforcement’ by the security forces. Rogue Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz’s Special Operations (SO) police, guarding the Supreme Court premises throughout the case and monitoring the constantly present protesters in the vicinity, charged into the public at precisely the moment the court announced its decision. Pepper-spray and disproportional force were used to disperse the crowd. The message was clear: any defiance of the Supreme Court order to annul the election would not be tolerated and would be violently subdued by security forces working in tandem with the four judges.
Subverting democracy with the rule of law
A subsequent detailed MDP analysis of the Supreme Court verdict comparing it to the secret Police Forensic Experts Report shows that in actuality, the total number of votes that could have been cast fraudulently is an astounding 242 (two hundred and forty two).
That the Supreme Court ruled in this way based on such flimsy and fictitious ‘evidence’ is proof of its politicisation and demonstrates how it is being used by politicians as a means of a) undermining democracy as a regime and b) getting rid of an opponent who cannot be eliminated by abiding by the principles of democracy. Cancelling the election puts anti-democracy politicians well on the path to realising both goals. To ensure that the destination is arrived at, first the Supreme Court ordered that a re-run of the cancelled first round be held before 20th October. This gave the Elections Commission a grand total of 12 days in which to organise everything for an election in which over 240,000 eligible voters are expected to vote. It also issued Guidelines consisting of 16 conditions the Elections Commission must abide by in it preparations for the election.
In addition to these orders aimed at making an election as difficult as possible, the Supreme Court verdict also acted against several principles of democracy and rule of law, which as discussed earlier, are among the few limitations meant to check judicial power discussed at the beginning of this analysis. This included infringing heavily on the role of the Elections Commission, not only setting a new date before which the election should be held (12 days from the verdict) but also strict guidelines according to which the election must be conducted.
These included more restrictions of democratic values and principles such as the an order minimising access to polling booths by media and independent observers, helping obscure what is meant to be a transparent process. The court also ordered that all voters who registered to vote in the second round in an electoral area outside of their home address re-register. The order also stipulated that the re-registration form should bear the fingerprint of the voter, two witnesses, and if the form was being submitted by another person on behalf of the voter, the fingerprint of that person too.
The underlying ethos of the entire ruling is that there should be as many restrictions placed on the right to vote as possible rather than facilitate it being extended to as many as possible. Most subversively, the Supreme Court verdict does this by invoking the principle of universal suffrage. Everybody has the right to vote, therefore, we will make sure as few people as possible can do so.
The unnecessary assumption of dangerous powers
One of the gravest threats to democratic governance included in the Supreme Court ruling is the power it has given itself to invoke the principle of necessity to resolve the current dispute should it deem fit to do so. As mentioned at the beginning of this analysis, the power to interpret laws can be akin to the power to legislate.
In 2009, the Supreme Court considered the legality of delaying parliamentary elections scheduled for 15 February 2009 by Article 296(a) of the Constitution. On 13 January 2009 it issued a ruling (02/C-SC/2009) stating that only a natural disaster beyond human control or a state of war would justify delaying the completion of a task specified in the Constitution, as specified in the Constitution and within the time specified. The verdict of 7 October, not only breaches this verdict of its own (as highlighted in Justice Mu’thasim Adnan’s dissenting opinion in 42/C-SC/2013) but also adds ‘necessity’ to natural disaster and state of war as conditions under which such a Constitutional deadline can be neglected without legal liability.
Necessity, Machiavelli’s guiding principle, is based on the belief that infringing on the moral law is justified when necessary. It allows an actor to engage in conduct that would under normal circumstances be deemed illegal because it is ‘necessary’. The principle has a long philosophical and juridical history, and has been invoked by countries to declare a state of exception, a state of emergency and martial law. The principle is easy to distort; as Cromwell put it, ‘necessity hath no law.’ It was in this state of exception based on the principle of necessity, for example, that the United States deemed many illegal acts, such as torture, legal during the War on Terror. US government lawyers argued then that the defence of necessity permitted acts of torture that violated domestic and international laws.
The Supreme Court’s decision to include ‘necessity’ among the conditions in which the Constitution can be legally ignored has allowed the Constitutional deadline (Article 110) to elect a new president at least 30 days prior to the expiry of the current presidential term on 11 November to lapse without legal liability. According to the Supreme Court verdict, there is no judicial or legal basis to argue that the time the Court took to deliberate the case was responsible for the lapse—it is the duty of the Court to properly and duly examine any allegation that a state institution has acted unconstitutionally. The deadline was bypassed not because of its own actions in delaying the case for so long, but because a state institution (namely the Elections Commission), in meeting the Constitutional deadline for presidential elections, acted outside of the Constitution. Therefore, under the principle of necessity, the Court’s lengthy and erratic deliberations, during which time the Constitutional deadline passed, can be deemed legal.
Responding to the argument that this lapsed Constitutional deadline to have a new president elected and ready to takeover on 11 November before 12 October means that the Maldives entered a constitutional void, the Court again invokes the principle of necessity to deny the accusation. And what occurred when the deadline lapsed, says the Supreme Court, is not a constitutional void but a ‘defacto state’ in which the doctrines of ‘state of necessity’ and ‘continuity of legal government’ allow the extra-legal extension of the Constitutional deadline to be deemed legal. In other words, by invoking the principle of necessity, the Supreme Court has assumed the power to deem the unconstitutional and illegal continuation of the current government as legal.
How long would the state of ‘necessary’ exception continue?
According to the Supreme Court, the Maldives is now in a ‘defacto state’ where it is possible to invoke the principle of necessity—by the Supreme Court—whenever it sees fit or until such time as elections are held. What has become crystal clear, especially in the days following the Supreme Court verdict, that it is working with political parties, most obviously former authoritarian ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), to obstruct the elections as much as possible.
As discussed above, the Supreme Court’s verdict to annul the election came with strict Guidelines that make preparations nigh on impossible. Since then, the Court has issued one additional order that eases the restrictions (allowing media access to the polling booths on election day) and two orders that further complicates the preparations. All three orders were issued at midnight and signed only by the Chief Justice. The Supreme Court has not sat together as a group since.
This is because, after issuing the ruling, the most corrupt of the judges, Ali Hameed, flew to Mecca for the Haj pilgrimage in what appears to be a cynical attempt to duck and cover behind religion. At a time when the stability of the nation hangs in balance, his eagerness to seek forgiveness for the sin of fornication could have taken a form that does not require being abroad. Repentance, for instance, is locally available to ‘Justice’ Hameed by admitting to the multiple incidents of fornication the nation has borne witness to, and accepting a public flogging. This would have the added benefit of Hameed being able to attend to the judicial duties he has given himself tenure to perform for as long as he lives.
The whereabouts of the rest of the other three judges who have worked with Hameed to bring the Maldivian democracy to its knees is not known. Taking on their subversive role and performing it with double eagerness is Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz, one of the three judges who dissented to the majority verdict annulling the election. The first of Faiz’s rulings was on Thursday October 10, ordering that the Elections Commission start the re-registration process from scratch; the second was on October 12 relaxing restrictions on the media outlined in the 7 October verdict; and the third, issued midnight on Sunday October 13 allowing fingerprint verification if any party complains, has the potential to make the election before 20 October absolutely impossible despite the Elections Commission’s determination that this not be the case.
As stated before, for as long as there is no election, the country remains in the ‘defacto state’ where the Supreme Court has given itself the power to invoke the principle of necessity and to make legal actions that are unconstitutional and illegal. Rogue Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, the disgracefully retired former Colonel who (with rogue Police Commissioner Riyaz) was instrumental in bringing the first democratic government to an end on 7 February 2012, has denied that he, and other coup-makers, are planning a military takeover. Experience has proven Nazim’s word means nothing, so such a circumstance cannot be ruled out. But, given that the Supreme Court has invoked the principle of necessity and already declared as legal the unconstitutional [and from the beginning illegitimate] ‘coalition government’ of Waheed, the declaration of martial law becomes a moot point. All it would take to stall the restoration of democracy in the Maldives indefinitely is for the Supreme Court to continue its declared State of Necessity where the rule of law is nothing but a political weapon for the subversion of democracy.
What is currently playing out in the Maldives is an all-out confrontation between democracy and autocracy in which the biggest weapon of the autocrats is the judicial independence that is widely accepted as a means of making democracy possible. If there ever was a text-book case of democracy being subverted by the rule of law, the unfolding events in the Maldives is it. If there is no election on 20 October, the only power that can stand up to the unchecked power of the judiciary is the source from which both judicial power and democracy stems: the power of the people.
Dr Azra Naseem has a PhD in International Relations
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