The Supreme Court has enacted new regulations authorising courts to initiate legal proceedings and punish individuals for any expression, action, gesture, or piece of writing “inside or outside a courtroom” that could be considered contempt of court.
The contempt of court regulations (Dhivehi) promulgated on July 24 states that its purpose is “establishing justice, removing obstacles to trials, and upholding the honour and dignity of courts.”
“Contempt of court is a crime. And holding courts and its judges in contempt, and committing any act that could diminish the honour and dignity of courts is against Article 141(c) and (d) of the Constitution,” states section three of the regulations.
Spoken or written words as well as deeds and gestures that constitute contempt of court include portraying the judiciary in a negative light, an utterance or action that demeans a court, a judge, or court officer, “criticising or berating a court or a judge, or committing any act that causes loss of respect and dignity of a court or a judge, or attempting to bring the court into disrepute.”
Other actions include obstruction of ongoing trials, non-compliance with court orders or verdicts, refusal to provide testimony at a trial, refusal to answer summons to appear at court or flying overseas without permission, and use of obscene language inside a courtroom.
Additionally, causing physical harm to a judge or a court officer, damaging court property, bringing cameras or recording devices into courtrooms without permission, leaving a courtroom during ongoing proceedings, causing disorder at a trial, and using a public forum or the media to unduly influence an ongoing trial would also be considered contempt of court.
While judges could immediately take punitive measures for contempt of court either during trials or within court premises, the regulations stipulate that the state must press charges and initiate criminal prosecution for words or deeds constituting contempt of court outside a courtroom.
However, the Supreme Court, High Court, and lower courts could initiate proceedings if either is the target of the contemptuous remark or action.
The apex court meanwhile has the discretion to initiate proceedings in cases involving contempt towards any court or judge.
If an institution exhibits contempt of court, the regulation states that its most senior official must bear responsibility and face charges.
The accused party in contempt of court trials would have the right to seek legal representation and defend themselves verbally or in writing. An odd number of judges must preside over such trials.
The accused could avail themselves of legal defence arguments used in criminal trials while evidence presented at such trials “with good will or intention to assist in the dispensation of justice” would not be considered contempt of court.
While providing information to the public regarding ongoing trials “truthfully and impartially” is permissible, the regulation states that courts could prohibit dissemination of information at its choosing.
Persons found guilty of contempt of court during proceedings at a hearing or trial could be sentenced to up to 15 days in jail, placed under house arrest for up to one month, or fined up to MVR10,000 (US$649).
For other cases of contempt of court during proceedings or inside court premises, the regulations state that persons could be sentenced pursuant to Articles 85 through 88 of the penal code.
However, section 13 – which deals with punishment – does not specify the punishment for instances of contempt of court outside the courtroom
Moreover, sentences passed during proceedings or following a contempt of court trial cannot be appealed at a higher court. However, the Supreme Court has the authority to take measures or issue orders while a contempt of court trial is ongoing at a lower court.
On March 9, less than two weeks before the parliamentary elections, the Supreme Court stripped former Elections Commission (EC) Chair Fuwad Thowfeek and Deputy Chair Ahmed Fayaz of their membership in the independent commission over contempt of court charges.
The Supreme Court had summoned EC members on February 27 and began a surprise trial on charges of contempt of court under new ‘sumoto’ regulations – promulgated in February – that allow the apex court to initiate proceedings and act as both prosecution and judge.
Meanwhile, in January, the Supreme Court suspended former Attorney General Husnu Suood and ordered police to investigate the lawyer for alleged contempt of court. The Prosecutor General’s Office, however, dropped the charges in March.
The former AG had represented the EC in an election annulment case before being ejected and barred from proceedings.
Moreover, the court also sought criminal charges against opposition-aligned private broadcaster Raajje TV over a report criticising the judiciary while Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz Hussain threatened legal action against media organisations or journalists who disseminate false or inauthentic information concerning the judiciary.
Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party MPs Alhan Fahmy and Imthiyaz Fahmy were meanwhile charged with contempt of court for criticising the apex court on Raajje TV.