Male’ is bracing for further protests after a weekend of violent demonstrations involving several hundred opposition supporters, as political tensions spiral over the military’s detention of Chief Judge of the Criminal Court, Abdulla Mohamed.
Eight opposition-aligned political parties held a joint press conference on Thursday afternoon calling on the public to join their series of protests “to defend the Maldivian constitution” and “bring the government back into legal bounds”.
Police said in a statement that five officers were “seriously injured” in protests that evening after opposition supporters in front of the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) building attempted to break through the police blockade.
A number of other police officers sustained minor injuries while a window of the MMA building was smashed and three police vehicles, one MNDF vehicle and the car of Civil Service Commission (CSC) head Mohamed Fahmy Hassan were damaged.
Opposition protesters also broke into the home of Youth Minister Hassan Latheef and vandalised his living room, while his wife and children were in the house. The homes of other ministers were also vandalised from the outside, and palm trees lining the main roads of Male’ were uprooted.
The Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC) claimed that six of its reporters were attacked on Thursday evening by the opposition protesters, including a cameraman who had paving stones and oil thrown at him, and a camera woman who had an unknown substance sprayed in her eyes as demonstrators attempted to take her video camera.
A group of male demonstrators also reportedly surrounded a female MNBC journalist and threatened to kill her and dump her body into the sea, before she was rescued by other reporters in the area.
Protesters also attempted to gather outside the MNBC premises and threw rocks and other objects at the walls.
Police arrested 43 people over the weekend, including former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) MP Ahmed Mahlouf, Adhaalath Party President Imran Abdulla, and spokesperson for the coalition of NGOs campaigning against the government’s religious policy, Abdulla Mohamed.
Charges included disrupting peace, damaging public and private property, including youth minister’s residence, breaking police lines, and inciting violence.
The Criminal Court today however ruled the arrests were unlawful and ordered the release of all those arrested.
The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) meanwhile called on the protesters to be mindful of the rights of others and to exercise their right to free assembly responsibly.
The commission observed that as a result of the manner of speech heard at such protests, “inducing anger, hatred and fear in people’s hearts”, public order and peace was “being very adversely affected.”
“As a consequence of such actions, the country’s social fabric is weakened and the trust and respect we should have towards one another are lost, forming numerous obstacles to establishing an environment that fully guarantees rights,” the commission said.
Hundreds of supporters of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) meanwhile gathered at a heated rally near the tsunami monument on Saturday afternoon. The ruling party launched a campaign earlier this month dubbed “You can’t say that anymore” against the opposition’s “use of religion as a weapon for political purposes.”
Today’s rally at the tsunami memorial area was part of the campaign, which has seen eight rallies held at the party’s Haruge headquarters in past weeks.
Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed is at the centre of the constitutional impasse currently being played out in the Maldives. The opposition contends that the judge’s “abduction” by the military last week and its refusal to release him or present him in court, despite being ordered to do so by the Supreme Court, represents a constitutional violation by the government.
The government – and former whistleblower on the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), Aishath Velezinee – present Abdulla Mohamed as the corrupt heart of a “silent coup” by the former government to assume control of the judicary, “taking the entire criminal justice system in his fist” and ensuring legal impunity for key opposition figures.
Presented with a litany of allegations against the judge, the JSC, as the watchdog body charged with overseeing the judiciary, formed a complaints committee to investigate the cases against the judge in December 2009.
However in November 2011 the Civil Court ordered the judicial watchdog to take no action against Abdulla Mohamed, despite a report by the JSC claiming that he had violated the Judge’s Code of Conduct by making statements favouring the opposition in an interview he gave to private broadcaster DhiTV.
The government’s decision to take action against the judge followed his opening of the court outside normal hours, to order the immediate release of Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, deputy leader of the minority opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP).
Police had attempted to arrested two senior members of the party on charges of slander and hate speech after they published a pamphlet alleging, among other claims, that the government was plotting with “Jews and Christian priests” to undermine Islam in the Maldives.
The Chief Judge was first summoned by police for questioning on January 16, but did not appear.
Instead, he filed a case at the High Court requesting the summons be cancelled on the grounds that it was illegal. The High Court then issued an injunction ordering police to halt enforcement of the summons pending a ruling.
Police subsequently requested the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) take Abdulla Mohamed into custody, as “the Criminal Court was not cooperating with police and that as a consequence of Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed obstructing police work, the country’s internal security was threatened and police were unable to maintain public order and safety.”
The judge was taken to the MNDF training island of Girifushi, where he currently remains.
“In good health”
HRCM in an “emergency” press conference yesterday stated that it had visited the judge and that he was in good health and being well treated, with the ability to freely roam the island. He had been granted, but had refused, access to his family, HRCM said.
In response to HRCM’s comments, the opposition accused the human rights body of “backing down” from its responsibilities. Deputy Leader of the Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP), Ibrahim Shareef, attacked the statement as “tame” and “mellow”, claiming that the “kidnapping” of the judge was inhumane.
The detention of the Chief Judge has polarised Maldivian society – and the government – even amid the country’s already intense political divide.
In an especially dramatic tangent, Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan declared on his blog that he was “ashamed and totally devastated by the fact that this is happening in a government in which I am the elected the Vice President.”
“Besides all the international legal obligations, the government of the Maldives is bound by the Maldives Constitution 1988 which prohibits arbitrary arrest and forced disappearance. We have just witnessed the first possible violation since the dawn of democracy in our country. I cannot understand why this is not an issue for everyone in this country,” Dr Waheed said.
“Those of us who have struggled for freedom in this country for over 30 years, are wondering whether we have wasted our efforts.”
The European Union Heads of Mission issued a statement expressing “concern at recent developments in [the Maldives], including the arrest of a criminal court judge by members of the security forces.”
“EU Heads of Mission reiterate their support for the process of democratic transition in the Maldives and note the importance of the principles underlying that transition, including respect for the constitution, due process, independence of the judiciary, the rule of law and freedom of expression are central to this process,” the statement read.
“EU Heads of Mission call on all parties in the Maldives to act in accordance with these principles and to refrain from inflammatory language or other action which could incite hatred.”
Secretary General of SAARC, Diyana Saeed, the youngest person and first woman to be appointed to the post, today confirmed her resignation following her public criticism of the executive’s refusal to obey the Supreme Court order to release the judge, during a press conference on VTV.
“[The Chief Judge’s detention] is a violation of individual human rights, a violation of the independence of the judiciary, and the violation of the constitution,” she told Minivan News on Thursday.
The government’s ignoring of a Supreme Court order is not without precedent in the Maldives.
Prior to the appointment of the new Supreme Court in August 2010 on conclusion of the constitution’s interim period, the existing bench sent a letter to the President declaring themselves permanent.
The letter was ignored, and the MNDF confiscated the keys to the Supreme Court until the new bench was eventually appointed by parliament – a process of intense and rapid backroom political compromise that was at the time hailed as a rare cross-party success for the institution.
Breaking the impasse
A government legal source told Minivan News that the JSC itself had found evidence of “gross misconduct” by Abdulla Mohamed, but was blocked from proceeding on the matter as the chief judge “has undue influence over at least one other judge of the Civil Court who issued a court order against the JSC and prevented it from performing its constitutional role.”
“The allegations levelled against him are of serious concern to the Maldivian government and community. It is apparent that both the Maldivian High Court and the Supreme Court remained silent on the matter,” the source stated.
“This is tacit acceptance of a ploy to prevent the JSC from exercising its powers under the constitution, and the JSC’s acceptance of the Civil Court order is an indication of the extent of undue influence that members of the judiciary have over the JSC.”
The government was, the source said, “taking appropriate action in extraordinary circumstances involving allegations of serious corruption and gross misconduct by a senior judge. Public statements seeking to define his detention as a human rights issue are part of the web of protection which surrounds Judge Abdulla Mohamed.”
Independent MP Mohamed Nasheed told Minivan News that the arrest of the judge could legally only have been ordered by the High Court.
“We have the security of the constitution, but while the print may be there it is evident that it doesn’t matter very much. If I am going to be arrested I deserve to expect certain rights. The arrest of Judge Mohamed should have been made on the order of the High Court,” he said.
He noted that Parliament had a standing committee, which had in turn formed a sub-committee, to investigate the JSC.
The hearings and interviews have been concluded at the sub-committee level said Nasheed, a member of that sub-committee and chair of the Independent Institutions Committee, and the information was to be compiled into a report and forwarded to the full committee.
“It’s possible we will have the investigation addressed within the first session of parliament this year,” Nasheed said.
He said the sub-committee had considered a reformation of the JSC.
“It’s the one institution that has not really taken off. It’s been bogged down with personality issues and procedural issues. Bring in a change of membership, some new blood, and give it a new chance,” he speculated, although adding that this would require bodies such as the Supreme Court to each revoke their own representatives on the commission.
The constitution also includes provision for the appointment of foreign judges from other Islamic countries, he noted.
Foreign judges may sit on court benches during the first 15 years of the constitution “only because we would like some technical assistance and expertise during the transition. This provision is the only area in which Maldivian citizenship is not required of a judge,” Nasheed said.