Aishath Velezinee was formerly the President’s Member on the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), the watchdog body assigned to appoint and investigate complaints against judges.
She has consistently maintained that the JSC is complicit in protecting judges appointed under the former government, colluding with parliament to ensure legal impunity for senior opposition supporters. During her tenure at the JSC she was never given a desk or so much as a chair to sit down on. In January 2011 she was stabbed twice in the back in broad daylight.
The JSC is now at the centre of a judicial crisis that has led to the military’s detention of Chief Judge of the Criminal Court, Abdulla Mohamed.
JJ Robinson: To what extent does the current judicial crisis represent the failure of Article 285 in 2010, the constitutional provision guaranteeing an independent and qualified judiciary at the conclusion of the two year interim period?
Aishath Velezinee: 100 percent. This was what I was trying to bring out at the time – but I could only allege that Abdulla Mohamed was at the heart of the matter. But it was very obvious to me that this was not just the action of one man, but a hijacking of the judiciary [by the opposition] – the ‘silent coup’.
In the highly politicised environment at time it was very difficult to get people to look into this, because parliament was out to cover it up – nobody was willing to take it up, and everyone wanted distance because it was too sensitive and so highly politicised. So really no one wanted to try and see if there was any truth to what I was saying.
Time passed. I didn’t imagine all this would come up so soon – it has been an amazing experience to see all of this suddenly happening so quickly.
It was inevitable – with everything Abdulla Mohamed has done inside and outside the courts, it was very obvious that he was not a man to be a judge.
With all the highly political rulings coming from the Criminal Court, it was clearly not right. The JSC’s cover up of Abdulla Mohamed was also apparent.
He had spoken on TV [against the government] – and it was not just his voice. There was no need to spend two years investigating whether he had said what he said.
Finally they decided yes, he is highly politicised, and had lost the capacity to judge independently and impartially. His views and verdicts were expressing not just partiality towards the opposition, but apparently a very deep anger against the government. It is very obvious when you speak to him or see him on the media. We had to look at what was behind all this.
JJ: Abdulla Mohamed filed a case in the Civil Court which ordered the JSC investigation be halted. Does the JSC have any jurisdiction to rule against its own watchdog body?
AV: Absolutely not. If the judicial watchdog can be overruled by a judge sitting in some court somewhere, then it’s dysfunctional. But that’s what has been happening. And [Supreme Court Judge] Adam Mohamed, Chair of the JSC, has probably been encouraging Abdulla Mohamed to do this.
The whole approach of the JSC is to cover up the judge’s misconduct. When it comes to Abdulla Mohamed it’s not just issues of misconduct – it’s possible links with serious criminal activities. There is every reason to believe he is influenced by serious criminals in this country.
JJ: The international community has expressed concern over the government’s ongoing detention of the judge by the military. Is the government acting within the constitution?
AV: It is impossible to work within the constitution when you have lost one arm of the state: we are talking about the country not having a judiciary. When one man becomes a threat to national security – and the personal security of everyone – the head of state must act.
He can’t stand and watch while this man is releasing people accused of murder, who then go out and kill again the same day. We are seeing these reports in the media all along, and everyone is helpless.
If the JSC was functioning properly – and if the Majlis was up to its oversight duties – we would not have got to this stage. But when all state institutions fail, then it is necessary to act rather than watch while the country falls down.
JJ: What next? The government surely can’t keep the judge detained indefinitely.
AV: We have to find a solution. It is not right to keep someone detained without any action – there must be an investigation and something must happen. I’m sure the government is looking into Abdulla Mohamed.
But releasing him is a threat to security. I have heard Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hassan calling for him to be released. Abdulla Mohamed is not under arrest – but his freedom of movement and communication would be a danger at this moment. We are at the point where we really and truly need to get to the bottom of this and act upon the constitution.
We talking about cleaning up the judiciary, and this is not talking outside the constitution – this is the foundation of the constitution. The constitution is build upon having three separate powers.
The judiciary is perhaps the most important power. The other powers come and go, politics change, but the judiciary is the balancing act. When that is out of balance, action is necessary.
With regards to attention from the international community – I tried really hard in 2010 to get the international community involved, to come and carry out a public inquiry, because we do not have any institution or eminent person with the authority to look into the matter. We needed outside help.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) did come and their report highlighted some things, but they did not have access to all the material because it’s all in Dhivehi. We need a proper inquiry into this, and a solution.
JJ: The Foreign Minister has asked the UN Office of Human Rights to send a legal team able to look into the situation and advise. To what extent will this draw on the constitution’s provision to appoint foreign judges?
AV: That has been something we were interested in doing, but the former interim Supreme Court Judge Abdulla Saeed was absolutely against it – not only bringing in foreign judges, but even judicial expertise. He was also against putting experts in the JSC so it could be properly institutionalised. The ICJ tried very hard to place a judge in there but didn’t get a positive response.
The UN brought in a former Australian Supreme Court Judge, but he didn’t get any support either. There was a lady [from Harvard] but she left in tears as well. There was no support – the Commission voted not to even give her a living allowance. They are unwelcoming to knowledge – to everyone. It is a closed place.
JJ: Is there a risk the UN will send a token advisor and things will quickly return to business as usual?
AV: We need the ICJ to be involved – someone like [former] UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Leandro Despouy. He was here for a fact-finding mission and had a thorough understanding of it, and gives authoritative advice.
We need to look for people who understand not only the law in the constitution, but what we are transiting from. Because that is really important.
JJ: There was talk of foreign judges and the establishment of a mercantile court for cases involving more than Rf 100,000 (US$6500). Based on the current state of the judiciary are people now more open to idea of foreign judges, where once they may have opposed it on nationalistic grounds?
AV: It is not a new thing. We have always used foreign knowledge since the time of the Sultans. We used Arabs who came here as our judges, they were respected people. Ibn Battuta practiced here as a judge during his voyages.
So it is not a new concept. This is the way we are – we do not have the knowledge. Now we are transitioning to a modern, independent judiciary, so of course we need new knowledge, practices and skills. The only way to get our judges up to standard is [for foreign judges] to be working in there, hands on.
Of course before that we have to make sure that the people on the bench are people who qualify under the constitution. With the bench we have right now it wouldn’t do much good bringing in expertise, because many of the people sitting there do not even have the basics to understand or move forward, they are limited in not having even basic education.
JJ: What percentage of the judiciary has more than primary school education?
AV: As a foundation, at least 50 percent have less that Grade 7. But they all say they have a certificate in justice studies – a tailor-made program written by the most prominent protester at the moment, former Justice Minister Mohamed Jameel of the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP). There were no textbooks on the course – they were given handouts.
Now we do have access to resources through the internet. But do the judges and magistrates have the skills or language abilities necessary to research on the internet? No they don’t.
JJ: Based on your access to privileged JSC information, you have also previously expressed concern at the high number of judges with actual criminal records. What about Abdulla Mohamed?
AV: Abdulla Mohamed was already a criminal convict before he was appointed to the bench. This man was found guilty of creating public disorder, hate speech and had publicly shown himself to be a woman hater or fearer- I don’t know which. But he has this bias against women and has been quoted as such in the courtroom. He’s got issues.
There are unchecked complaints against him in the JSC. The JSC has this practice of taking every complaint and giving it to committee one at a time. But if you look at everything, there is a pattern suggesting links to criminals. The Criminal Court has been given power as the only court able to rule on police custody during police investigations – why does Abdulla Mohamed have a monopoly on this? He personally locks up the seal. Why does he control it?
JJ: What do you mean when you claim he has links to organised crime?
AV: It’s a pattern. He tries to prevent investigation of all the heavy drug cases, and when the case does make it before the court his decisions are questionable. In one instance newspaper Haveeru sent a complaint saying the Criminal Court had tried a case and changed the verdict behind closed doors.
Haveeru later called for the complaint to be withdrawn. But my approach is to say, once we have a complaint we must check it. The complainant can’t withdraw a complaint, because there must have been a reason to come forward in the first place. That verdict referred to something decided two years before – Abdulla Mohamed changed the name of the convict. A mistake in the name, he said. How can you change a name? A name is an identity. The JSC never investigated it.
JJ: Prior to the JSC’s decision to dissolve the complaints committee, it was receiving hundreds of complaints a year. How many were heard?
AV: Five were tabled, four were investigated. Their approach was that if nobody was talking about the judge, then the judge was above question. So they would cover up and hide all the complaints.
Approach of this constitution is transparency – and the investigation is itself proof of the judge’s independence. An accusation doesn’t mean he is not up to being a judge. But if it is not investigated, those accusations stand. Instead, the JSC says: “We don’t have any complaints, so nobody is under investigation.”
We are struggling between the former approach and the new approach of the constitution. We have seen judges with serious criminal issues kept on bench and their records kept secret. They have a problem adapting themselves to the new constitution and democratic principles that require them to gain trust.
JJ: Is it possible to revive Article 285, or did that expire at the conclusion of the interim period?
AV: Article 285 is the foundation of our judiciary, the institutionalisation of the one power that is going to protect our democracy. How can we measure it against a time period set by us? Two years? We did everything we could to try and enact it. It was a failure of the state that the people did not get the judiciary.
We cannot excuse ourselves by saying that the two years have passed. Parliament elections were delayed – much in the constitution was delayed. 80 percent of the laws required to be passed under this constitution have yet to be adopted. Are we going to say ‘no’ to them because time has passed?
We can’t do that, so we have to act.
JJ: Parliament has oversight of the JSC – what ability does parliament have to reform it?
AV: Parliament has shown itself to be incapable of doing it. We are seeing parliamentarians out trying to free Judge Abdulla Mohamed – including Jumhoree Party (JP) MP Gasim Ibrahim, a member of the JSC.
So I don’t think we even need to enter into this. it is apparent they are playing politics and do not have the interest of the people or the state at heart. They never believed in this constitution, they were pushed into adopting a democratic constitution, they failed in the elections, and now they are out to kill the constitution.
I am wondering even what they are protesting about. Last night it was Judge Abdulla, and the religious card. It is fear driven.
What we are seeing is [former President Maumoon Abdul] Gayoom and [his half brother, Abdulla] Yameen trying to turn their own personal fears into mass hysteria. Nobody else is under threat – but they are if we have an independent judiciary. If their cases are heard they know they are in for life.
JJ: So this is a struggle for survival?
AV: Exactly. The final battle – this is the last pillar of democracy. If we manage to do this properly, as stated in the constitution, we can be a model democracy. But not without a judiciary.