Judiciary needs transitional arrangement before elections: former JSC member

The former Presidential Member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) Aishath Velezinee has called on international organisations to lead a transitional arrangement for the judiciary prior to September’s presidential elections.

UN Special Rapporteur for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Gabriela Knaul’s final report to the UN Human Rights Council extensively outlined the political, budgetary and societal challenges facing the judiciary and wider legal community, as well as the politicisation of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) and its failure to appoint qualified judges under Article 285 of the constitution.

The Special Rapporteur also expressed “deep concern” over the failure of the judicial system to address “serious violations of human rights” during the Maldives’ 30 year dictatorship, warning of “more instability and unrest” should this continue to be neglected.

“The UN special rapporteur’s report has raised very serious concerns that the public should be thinking about, because it has implications that affects every single individual in this country, the report is not for the state alone,” said Velezinee during a press conference held on June 5.

“The report raises questions regarding the impartiality of the supreme court. It highlights a political bias in the supreme court,” Velezinee said. “If we are going to allow the supreme court to be the decider on elections, there is very little reason for the public to have confidence in the election results.”

Velezinee noted that because only three months remain before the September 7 presidential elections, “It is time for the parliament and for the leaders to sit down together and come to a transitional arrangement.”

“That transitional arrangement should include a bench or some system outside of existing courts, outside of the supreme court, that will have a final say on all election related issues,” she stated.

“It can’t be done only locally. We need the expertise, presence and participation of the International Commission of Jurists as well as the UN in a transitional arrangement,” she continued.

“Considering the status of the state today, we need a partnership. Bilateral participation would not be something to promote, the best thing would be to have broader participation with international partners,” Velezinee added.

Resistance to consolidating democracy

“Our country today is at a serious critical junction and the issues are all coming from resistance to consolidating democracy,” said Velezinee.

“One of the most serious issues noted in the [UN special rapporteur’s] report is the misconstruing of democratic concepts in the constitution, and the use of these for personal gain by state officials within the JSC, Supreme Court, as well as parliament.”

“After elections the judiciary must be overhauled,” she declared.

The JSC was required to re-appoint judges under Article 285 of the constitution who possessed “educational qualifications, experience and recognised competence to discharge the duties and responsibilities of a judge, and must be of high moral character.”

“It is only through acknowledgement and acceptance that we have breached the constitution on article 285 that we will have the opportunity and the legitimacy to overhaul the judiciary,” explained Velezinee.

“That is very important, unless we do that we may fall into a cycle of coups… and this will go on unless the judiciary functions correctly.”

Velezinee said that while only the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) “has stood by the constitution”, it had failed so far to directly address the controversial re-appointment of unqualified judges to the judiciary.

“I have heard the MDP talk about problems in the judiciary and with individual judges, but I am disappointed I have not yet heard them speak of the constitutional breach of article 285,” she told Minivan News.

“[Parliamentary Speaker Abdulla] Shahid is an expert on democracy and is ready to intervene to return the Maldives to the constitution,” claimed Velezinee. “Having Shahid join the MDP is good because now they can go ahead and return the country [to constitutional rule].”

“I also welcome [former Attorney General Husnu] Suood breaking his silence and taking initiative. It’s a good sign he’s speaking up,” she added.

Eariler this week Suood claimed that the JSC had been taken over “dark powers”, and that it was fully under the control of certain political figures.

Suood further contended that the presidential candidate for the government-aligned Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and PPM MP Ahmed Nazim, and retired Supreme Court Judge Mujthaz Fahmy have long been in the business of influencing the judges and the verdicts they had been issuing.

“The entire judiciary is under the influence of [retired Supreme Court Judge] Mujthaaz Fahmy,” he alleged.

Suood further alleged that Deputy Speaker Nazim had close ties with members of the JSC, and said several judges had told him that Yameen Abdul Gayoom – half brother of former President of 30 years, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – had on several occasions given instructions to the judges over the phone as to how their sentences should be phrased.

Yameen and Nazim have denied the allegations.


Civil Court orders JSC to reassess the eligibility of judge dismissed for assault

The Civil Court on Sunday ordered the Judicial Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to reevaluate the qualifications and eligibility of Raa Atoll Maakurathu Court Magistrate Adnan Hussain, who was dismissed in 2010 for failing to meet the “high moral character” required of a judge.

The court issued the ruling following a suit filed by Magistrate Adnan Hussain, claiming he was disqualified unconstitutionally. He had also asked the court to order the JSC to reimburse his full salary and privileges from August 2010 until now.

During the reappointment of judges in 2010, in which all but a few sitting judges in the lower courts were given life tenure, the JSC decided to disqualify Adnan Hussain and several other judges as he had failed to meet the “high moral character” requirement stipulated in article 149, due to prior conviction for assault.

In addition to the qualifications specified in Article (a), the judge should “not [have] been convicted of an offence for which a hadd is prescribed in Islam, criminal breach of trust, or bribery”, according Article (b) section 3.

However, on Sunday the court contended that the offence of assault “does not constitutionally necessitate [his] dismissal”.

Presiding Judge Mariyam Nihaaath acknowledged that Hussain was convicted for the “least form” of assault and it was committed before his appointment to the bench in 2007. Furthermore, she observed that he had not repeated the same offence and did not have any prior criminal records, which proved that he has no intention of repeating the offence.

Moreover, as it was proven in court that judges with similar convictions were deemed eligible during the reappointment process, Nihaayath contended that Former Magistrate Hussain must be treated same those judges.

She concluded that JSC discriminated against Hussain, adding that commission had acted in a manner which violated his constitutional right to non-discrimination and equal protection before law.

“Therefore, from March 29 onward, within the next 30 days, the JSC must reevaluate Hussain’s qualifications to determine his eligibility,” she ruled.

JSC’s decision in 2010 to remove dozens of judges from the bench for contradicting moral character clause, has been previously challenged in the court.

According to the article 15 of the Judges Act – which came into effect five days after the reappointment of judges – a judge will be considered as failing to meet the required ethical and moral standards if they had served a sentence for a criminal offence in the seven years prior to the appointment.

The 2008 constitution created and mandated the JSC with bringing the judiciary in line with its new standards designed to meet the values of a functioning democracy within two years of the constitution coming into effect. The deadline expired on 7 August 2010.

Had the passage of the Act taken less time in parliament, the JSC would have been in possession of detailed guidelines on if, how and when a member of the judiciary can be removed from the bench.

Judges argued in court that the JSC deliberately decided not to wait for the legislation to be passed by the Majlis and, in fact, expedited the dismissals to suit members’ own personal opinions and political interests, while disregarding their criminal convictions.

Meanwhile, JSC’s  decision to reappoint two  judges previously removed from the bench for sexual misconduct in December 2011, prompted criticism from several lawyers – however, the JSC defended itself citing that the Judges Act allowed it as the convictions pre-dated the aforementioned seven years.


Tensions escalate between executive and judiciary

The Judges Association of Maldives (JAM) has condemned President Mohamed Nasheed’s criticism of the Judicial Service Commission’s (JSC) decision on determining guidelines for the reappointment of sitting judges as “disrespectful towards the honour and dignity of judges” and indicative of the “negative view he holds of the judiciary”.

A press release issued by the association last week accuses the president of attempting to cast undue influence over the Judicial Service Commission by calling for amendments to the eligibility criteria approved last month, an act which could “render separation of powers obsolete”.

Article 285(b) of the constitution stipulates that the JSC shall determine whether or not sitting judges possess the qualification of judges specified in article 149 before August 7 2010.

The article states that judges must possess “educational qualifications, experience and recognised competence to discharge the duties and responsibilities of a judge, and must be of high moral character.”

On May 9, the JSC voted to approve as minimum standards to determine “high moral character” that judges must not have been convicted in a court of law of an offence with a punishment prescribed in the Quran, criminal breach of trust or bribery.

Following the 5-2 vote, Aishath Velezinie, President Nasheed’s member on the JSC, characterised the contentious decision as “nothing less than treason to rob the people of an honest judiciary.”

Velezinie warned that the decision could effectively give tenure to 19 judges found guilty of various offences by state institutions such as the former Anti-Corruption Board.

Two days later, the commission approved guidelines for determining educational qualifications, experience and competence.

In his radio address on May 28, President Nasheed said he believed the JSC decision could hinder the commission’s mandate of ensuring public confidence in the judiciary.

The decision was “worrying” as records showed that judges found guilty by the relevant authorities under the old constitution, or who had faced criminal prosecution and allegations of gross misconduct, were currently on the bench.

“Grade seven standard”

President Nasheed criticised the criteria for educational qualifications as setting the bar too low.

“For the standard to determine educational qualification, they are saying [judges must possess] a certificate in either law or Shariah, and even if the certificate is not accredited by the Maldives Accreditation Board, it must be a certificate of at least level three or higher accepted by the government”, he said.

Hence, he added, the minimum educational qualification for judges approved by the JSC was essentially “grade seven”.

According to the guidelines approved by the commission, said Nasheed, sitting judges would be eligible for reappointment if they have not been convicted in court of 29 criminal offences decided upon by the JSC.

The JSC also decided that sitting judges would be deemed to possess the requisite experience.

Nasheed said the criteria to determine experience and educational qualification was “inappropriate” for contemporary Maldivian society.

Moreover, taking the lack of convictions as enough to determine high moral character was “not ideal.”

An official request has been made with the JSC to review and amend the guidelines, he said.

The JSC consists of the speaker of parliament, an MP and a member of the general public appointed by parliament; a judge each from the Supreme Court, High Court and the trial courts; a practicing lawyer elected by licensed lawyers; the Chair of the Civil Service Commission; a member appointed by the president and the Attorney General.

Justice Fahmy

A statement issued by the JSC before the president’s address defended the decision as both “within the bounds of article 149” and “very fair”.

The statement signed by Justice Mujthaz Fahmy, president of the JSC, notes that differences of opinion among members only emerged over the criteria for determining high moral character.

It adds that the reappointment of judges as stipulated by article 285 was very different from the normal process of appointing or dismissing judges and magistrates.

Moreover, the commission believes the decision will “draw criticism no matter how fair it was.”

The statement goes on to condemn “efforts by certain groups to dishonour the judiciary and strip judges of their honour and dignity.”

“The commission is extremely concerned as such actions could undermine the independence of the judiciary and adversely affect society,” it reads.

While the creation of the JSC was delayed until July 26, 2009 due to “various legal problems” and its members do not work full-time, the statement assures that the commission was working “sincerely, truthfully and in line with the constitution” to fulfil its responsibilities.

“Abuse of power”

However, writing in her personal blog, Velezinie claims the statement was issued “in violation of clause 4(d) of the commission’s rules of procedure and article 163 of the constitution” as it solely represented Fahmy’s personal views.

Justice Mujthaz Fahmy had refused to either allow further discussions on the guidelines or vote on amendments, she writes.

As Fahmy was among the 19 judges with prior convictions, Velezinie claims, he faces a conflict of interest on the issue of judges’ tenure and reappointment.

Moreover, while the Supreme Court Justice was also the chair of both standing committees of the commission, the complaints committee has not been convened as of May 1.

Fahmy replaced High Court Judge Abdul Gani Mohamed as President of the JSC on February 21 when the latter was removed by a ruling from three Judges of the High Court.

Velezinie reveals that although a committee consisting of the three judges on the commission was tasked in August 2009 with formulating a draft of the guidelines for reappointment, the full committee only met once as Fahmy did not attend the second meeting.

Meanwhile, the “285 Standards Committee” formed after Gani’s expulsion and chaired by Civil Service Commission President Dr Mohamed Latheef met on three days and drafted the final guidelines during meetings that each lasted half an hour.

The sub-committee, consisting of Judges Adam Mohamed Abdullah and Abdullah Didi from the JSC as well as Chief Judge of the Juvenile Court Shuaib Hussein Zakariya and Civil Court Judge Abdullah Ali, did not consider either the previous proposals or “the purpose and spirit of the constitution and the objective of article 285.”

She adds that Fahmy’s actions were “extremely worrying” as it could cast doubt over the independence of both the JSC and the judiciary.

Moreover, Velezinie continues, failure to provide agendas and minutes of meetings to members as required by law “facilitates corruption in the commission.”

“The Judicial Service Commission, and along with it the courthouse and judges, will only gain public trust when it proves to the people with words and deeds that it is an institution that is independent from the three powers,” she entreats. “Instead of hiding behind law certificates and making decisions based on self-interest and one’s own views, [the commission has to] put national interest and public welfare first.”