The Torture Victims Association (TVA) held its inaugural meeting last night, following its founding in January 2010 by Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem, Tourism Minister and human rights lawyer Dr Ahmed Ali Sawad, and Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed.
Naseem, who is president of the organisation, said the organisation’s purpose was to support torture victims and “prevent these types of things from happening again in Maldives.”
He said the organisation was founded “so there is a place [torture victims] can go and talk about what happened to them, and take some solace, get some comfort.”
“[Torture] happened a lot, openly,” said Naseem, who says he was himself a victim of torture.
“It happened under several governments… through government institutions. It wasn’t the exception, it was the norm here.”
A political thing
The TVA has come under scrutiny already for being an MDP-led NGO, of which President Nasheed has just become a member.
“It’s non-governmental, and it is not a political organisation,” Naseem insisted, “it is totally egalitarian.”
Torture through silence
“At the [inaugural] meeting, there were victims who were tortured as well as people who torturered through their silence,” Sawad said. “Through their silence, they condoned a culture of torture.”
The previous government has been accused of torture, but none of the accused have been taken to court.
The first step in bringing justice to victims of torture is, according to the TVA, gathering information and evidence.
“Gathering information is the very initial stage,” Naseem said. “We also need the support of the people of this country. It’s a traumatised society. Families have been traumatised.”
Creating a historical record of torture in the Maldives, and breaking the silence, are two major steps forward, claims the TVA.
“We are the only country in the world who doesn’t have a historical record regarding this,” Naseem noted. “In the Pol-Pot regime, in Nazi Germany, in Kosovo, they know how many people were killed. But here, we don’t know. We just see in the papers that some people have been lost. That’s it.”
Dr Sawad said the entire culture of torture “has been called a myth by powerful members of our community. But it happened. With that acknowledgement, we can focus on accountability.”
Kevin Laue, a lawyer with London-based human rights NGO Redress, is working with the TVA to seek justice for victims of torture.
“Finding out what happened is key…then we can decide what needs to be done,” said Laue.
Mohamed Hussain ‘Mundhu’ Shareef, spokesman for the former president, said there has been no formal response from Gayoom to the TVA’s allegations “because they are not an entity we recognise as being worthy of response.”
“Just look at who’s in charge. When the association starts with a name like Reeko Moosa, who hates Gayoom, there is very little reason to take them seriously.”
Mundhu said the TVA wanted people to believe it is was an NGO – impartial, free of government intervention and politically unbiased – but he said suggested that it had been formed as a “political ploy… to divert people’s attention from the failures of this government.”
When asked whether the number of politicians in the Association could be a liability for the impartiality of their work, Naseem answered, “what can you do?”
“All the people who participated in the human rights movement in the Maldives are now in government, so you can’t avoid it. Some went to jail, some people were brutalised and some people died. You can’t say it’s the government, we are human beings.”
Naseem reiterated that the TVA is “not a political thing” and it only becomes political when people are looking for a “quick fix.”
“A process like this takes years,” Naseem said. “We work through the government and the judiciary, and if the government doesn’t get involved, it is much better.”
The TVA says members of the former government “cannot” admit to torture allegations because they would be tried in court, but Mundhu said that none of the “ridiculous claims of defamation of character” against former president Gayoom have held up in a court of law.
“Gayoom is the single most popular individual in this country,” he said. “The government should be ashamed of accusing him of torture.”
Dr Sawad said the TVA does not believe it was up to the government or the state to decide what would happen to the torturers.
“It’s for the victim to launch the claim and for the judicial system to decide. And we are here to facilitate that,” he explained.
He added that the TVA wants to “document and push the claims of torture within the judiciary.”
“If we believe that the claim has not been addressed through the domestic judicial system, we are prepared to take it to the next level.”
Laue said that “if [torturers] are not prosecuted [in the Maldives], we must not forget torture is a crime which is under universal jurisdiction.”
Assuming there is enough evidence, Laue claimed a perpetrator could be arrested and tried in a foreign country, extradited or sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC).