Indian hackers take down MACL website as lenders, Malaysian government seek to resolve GMR crisis

Indian hackers have taken over the website of the Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL), the government company that has ordered the GMR-Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) consortium to hand over the airport by the end of next week.

The hackers, calling themselves the “Indishell Defacers Team”, replaced the MACL homepage with a black background and a pair of eyes Thursday (November 29) evening, demanding that the Maldives “stop defaming Indian Reputed Companies & learn how to run a website and secure it first.”

“If you don’t know how to secure a website, can you run an Airport securely, MACL?” the hackers added, along with a promise to “do anything for India”.

As of Saturday afternoon, the MACL website remained suspended. MACL CEO Mohamed Ibrahim declined to comment, stating only that he was in a meeting and that the company would “issue media statements from time to time”.

Following the government’s announcement last week that its contract with GMR was void and it would therefore be issuing a seven day ultimatum for the investor to leave the country, MACL claimed that local employees who applied for jobs with the state operator would “have their present basic salary, allowances and other benefits, and training and development opportunities maintained under MACL management.”

The same day, the Immigration Department announced that it would cease renewing the work permits of GMR’s 140 foreign employees, while the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) sent GMR a letter stating that the operator’s aerodrome certificate – the regulatory authority to operate an airport – would be withdrawn at 11:59pm on December 7.

MACL has also filed a complaint with the Maldives Police Service, alleging that the contract was given to GMR in 2010 “unlawfully”.

GMR has meanwhile stated that it has no intention of leaving without exhausting the legal process and seeking due compensation – the company has stated that it has already invested between US$220-240 million of funds set out for the US$511 million airport development project.

Arbitration proceedings over the contentious airport development charge were already ongoing in Singaporean courts prior to the government’s declaration that the contract was void.

GMR is currently seeking an injunction against its eviction in the Singapore courts, with the next hearing reportedly set for Monday.

Malaysian visit

Meanwhile, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and MAHB Managing Director Basir Ahmed visited the Maldives on Friday to try and resolve the situation.

Aman told local media at the airport that his discussion with Maldivian Foreign Minister Dr Abdul Samad Abdulla was “fruitful”.

“As we are two friendly nations, there is no reason why this matter cannot be resolved,” Aman was reported as stating by Haveeru.

The reaction from the Indian government and industry groups has been substantially less prosaic.

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), expressed “serious concern over the unilateral decision of the Maldives government” and the “violation” of the country’s concession agreement with GMR.

The chamber of commerce group urged the Indian government “to take immediate steps as may be necessary to protect the interests of GMR, its people working in Male’ as well as the Indian banks against such irrational moves.”

Lenders to GMR, including the lead underwriter Axis Bank, Indian Overseas Bank and the Indian Bank have meanwhile written to the Maldives government demanding that their interests be protected. US$368 of the US$511 million project is a loan component, most of it financed by Indian companies.

The Indian government is meanwhile reported to be reconsidering its bilateral aid assistance to the Maldives.

A succession of Indian loans have been crucial to the Maldives’ ability to pay its operating costs, including civil servant salaries.

Days prior to the government’s decision to void the GMR agreement, India had requested repayment of US$100 million in treasury bonds by February 2013.

A further US$25 million state loan from India was found to have been delayed after the Maldivian government failed to submit the requested paperwork, according to an Indian diplomatic source.

Overall Indian aid to the Maldives has totalled MVR 5 billion (US$324 million) over the last three years, according to official statistics from the Indian High Commission released in May.

In additional to credit facilities, purchase of bonds and provision of equipment and financial assistance, India provided the government substantial aid to hold the SAARC Summit in Addu Atoll last year.

In the last three years, India funded the construction of the Faculty of Tourism and Hospitality, provided US$4.5 million for the development of Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH), US$25 million for a police academy, US$9 million for police vehicles, US$1.5 million for a coastal management centre, US$1 million for the purchase of pharmaceuticals and sports equipment, US$5.3 million for the Institute of Information Technology, and most recently, the construction of a military hospital for the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF).

Credit facilities of US$40 million were provided for the construction of 500 housing units, while the State Bank of India (SBI) had spent US$100 million of treasury bonds (with a further US$100 as standby credit). India also provided US$28 million for the development of human resources in the Maldives.

Moreover, a substantial amount of private lending to the resort industry development takes place through Indian banking institutions active in the country, most notably SBI, and a significant quantity of food to the import-dependent Maldives (including basics provisions such as eggs) is supplied through trade concessions with India.

India has also provided extensive military support to the Maldives, including supplying vehicles and a helicopter.

“An impact on ties is inevitable,” Indian newspaper The Hindu reported a senior Indian government source as stating, after last week’s decision by the Maldivian cabinet to evict GMR.

“For the time being, we have to consider how things stand and how to proceed,” an official source told the paper, “when asked whether India would continue assisting the Maldives in combating its financial difficulties, including paying salaries to civil servants and shoring up the surveillance and reconnaissance ability of its security forces.”

“Stability can come only after elections. All of them [political parties] are looking for some cause célèbre. GMR has unwittingly become a major political issue in the Maldives,” an official source told the paper.

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Analysis: Economy at stake as political turmoil grips Maldives

The tourism industry stands to lose as much as US$100 million in the next six months, the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) has warned, due to widespread media coverage of the country’s political unrest.

“Potential visitors are questioning the safety and security in the island nation as the political turmoil in Maldives makes headlines in a large number of international media,” claimed MATI in a recent statement, adding that resorts had registered 500 cancellations in the first week following the change of government.

“Various allegations such as the installation of an Islamic regime, possible enactment of full Sharia law and Anti Semitic remarks made by politicians at public gatherings have also caught the attention of the international press,” MATI stated.

With no election date in sight, the economic consequences of the ongoing political turmoil in the Maldives are likely to be far reaching. The ongoing climate of uncertainty – anathema to business, foreign investment and especially tourism – is likely to persist while the ousted Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) continues to challenge the legitimacy of the new government, which in turn has resisted setting a date for early elections despite pressure from a growing number of international bodies.

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The Maldives’ resort industry is so insulated from the rest of the country that few arriving tourists are likely to be even aware of the unfolding political crisis – let alone be impacted by it. Arriving guests are collected at the airport and whisked off by resort representatives the moment they step through the departure gate – Male’ is nothing more than an interesting piece of scenery as the seaplane lifts off.

“That message is not going out,” says newly appointed Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb. “People don’t know that the resorts are separate [from the rest of the Maldives], and international headlines have made people panic.”

The need for an economy is one of the only subjects the major parties agree on – and the US$3 billion tourism industry is by far the biggest earner, and indirectly responsible for over 70 percent of the economy.

“Tourism is so much connected to the economy. We cannot afford to involve politics in the industry,” Adheeb says.

MATI’s Secretary General, Sim Mohamed Ibrahim, agrees: “The travelling public don’t always know that it is one resort, one island, and that the resorts are cushioned from the unrest. This has mostly taken place in in Male’ and Addu. The resorts are far removed from the unrest.”

That policy of segregation is now being tested after weeks of turbulent headlines in international media, focusing not only on the political crisis and police crackdowns, but other issues such as the contrast between the Western hedonism of the resorts and rising religious fundamentalism in other parts of the country.

“The main problem is that the media is now portraying the Maldives as a hardcore Islamic country, which is putting people off,” reported Tourism Review.

MATI’s concerns appeared echoed in the new government’s aggressive response to negative media coverage on Friday, during a strident speech by the formerly demure President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan.

“We are not afraid to die as martyrs. We are not afraid of the enemies we face,” Dr Waheed told the crowd of over five thousand, while sharing the stage with several of the country’s wealthiest resort tycoons.

“We must be sad that the enemies and traitors of the Maldives are spreading lies in various places of the world to tarnish the country’s image. They are the real conspirators. Those who defame the Maldives to destroy its industries and tourism are enemies of this country,” he said.

The true impact of recent events on tourism is hard to gauge, amid the industry’s efforts to play down negative media coverage and preserve the country’s reputation as a safe, peaceful and relaxing travel destination for well-heeled visitors.

“There have been some reported cancellations, although no data is available yet,” a senior tourism official told Minivan News. “A lot of resorts are very concerned and are asking what’s around the corner. We’ve no answer to that yet.”

Adheeb said the Tourism Ministry was presently “crunching the numbers”.

Reports at the height of the crisis in early February suggested that tourists hardly put down their cocktails: “We are having a great time. We heard about the coup, but it doesn’t matter to us,” a professor of American literature told Reuters, between sips – “And even if there is trouble, the airport is on another island, so no trouble.”

The situation was not considered so severe that people were cancelling their holidays, the tourism official told Minivan News, but a lot of resort owners were expressing concern about forward bookings, he said.

Furthermore, while the guests might be unconcerned about the Maldivian political situation, many of the Maldivian staff serving them certainly were.

“The beauty of the Maldivian tourism product is that resorts are safe even if there are local problems,” the official told Minivan News. “But 50,000 Maldivians work in the industry, and they are largely from the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Morale of the staff may be affected – staff are talking and unsettled, and they will pass that onto guests. Tourism is a contact sport and many visitors will build a rapport with their waiter or butler, and it will spill out.”

One resort manager expressed concern that the combination of staff morale and isolation was a “powder keg” for strike action.

Lack of information and fears for the safety of family members appears to be another factor – visiting a resort on Baa Atoll recently, Minivan News was approached by staff members concerned for family members in Addu Atoll, following the police crackdown after the destruction of their buildings on February 8.

‘Travel Advisory’

A travel advisory issued by Salisbury-based NGO Friends of Maldives (FOM), urging visitors to avoid Bandos and all Villa properties (Sun, Paradise, Royal and Holiday Islands), has received a mixed reaction.

“These are places linked to individuals or groups who we suspect to be involved in the subversion of democracy and in human rights abuses in the Maldives,” FOM said in its accompanying statement, but emphasised that it was not a blanket boycott of the Maldives.

“We appreciate the Maldives economy relies hugely on the tourism economy, and so we aren’t asking for tourists to avoid the Maldives – rather we are asking them to make an informed and ethical decision to choose out of around a hundred resorts that aren’t associated with the the coup d’état and the human rights abuses that occurred following the event,” said FOM’s founder, David Hardingham.

MATI meanwhile condemned “in strongest possible terms” the “call for a boycott of some Maldivian tourist resorts”.

“MATI believes that any action detrimental to the tourism industry of the Maldives will have serious implications for the country’s economy. We believe that those who refer to themselves as friends of the Maldivian people must realise that such damaging measures taken against he tourism industry result in harming public welfare and those most vulnerable in society.”

The travel advisory was “very hurtful”, added Adheeb.

“Something like this can really affect the whole industry and bring a lot of sorrow,” the tourism minister said. “A lot of Maldivians work in these resorts. We say to FOM that it’s too early to judge – there are a lot of negative things happening in our country, so let things unfold first. We request that they not play with our industry.”

The senior tourism official also expressed concern about the potential impact of the advisory on resort staff – many of whom were MDP. He also warned against rhetoric suggesting that resort owners were responsible “for the coup” – a theme begun by Nasheed after his ousting, and picked up by several international publications.

“This cannot blamed on resort owners,” he said. “That a few businessmen who own resorts toppled the government does not means that all resorts are ‘pro-coup’ – many actually supported Nasheed, and he still has a lot of support there.”

The official also questioned whether an ‘appeal-to-conscience’ would really affect tourists’ decision to come to the Maldives, regardless of whether it was a democracy or dictatorship.

“Most people don’t really make travel decisions based on ethical or moral concerns. It’s a small percentage of the market,” he said.

Sim agreed – “People do not travel to the Maldives based on questions of morality” – but said the impact remained to be seen.

“People do not travel to destinations that are in any way not peaceful, or are experiencing civil unrest,” he said.

The Maldives tourism industry began in the 70s and grew in a peaceful environment under the autocratic stability of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Now, however, unhappy supporters of Nasheed have been bolstered by the growing ranks of the democratically disenfranchised, who seem in no hurry to relax their demands for early elections.

The uncertainty in such a climate of political statement can hardly be good for business – and the signs are beginning to show.

Investor confidence

On February 17, just over a week after the change of government, India’s Economic Times reported that the State Bank of India (SBI) had issued a moratorium on fresh loans in the Maldives until June.

SBI held a quarter of all deposits in the Maldives and had issued 42 percent of all loans, according to the Times.

“In 2009, SBI bailed out Maldives from a severe foreign exchange crisis when it subscribed to US$100million dollar-denominated treasury bonds issued by the Maldivian Monetary Authority (MMA),” the paper added, citing an Indian government official.

Given SBI’s contribution to the tourism industry in the Maldives, “that is something we are very concerned about,” Adheeb acknowledged.

“I would like to give confidence to investors that we will make sure we are stable and consultative, and will not bring politics into tourism,” he added.

Sim pointed out that if SBI had taken such a stance, “it is likely that other people will also view it this way. Stability in the country is most important to investors,” he said.

“SBI has also previously said they have a problem with the judiciary, and that this has contributed to a [lack of] investor confidence.”

Concerns about the impartiality of the justice system and its resistance to reform eventually led Nasheed’s government to detain Chief Judge of the Criminal Court, Abdulla Mohamed, and call for the UN and Commonwealth to help resolve the crisis. Two weeks later, opposition supporters and rogue elements of the police and military toppled Nasheed’s government, prompting his resignation.

“This is a problem for potential investors. If you invest and something goes wrong, all roads lead to a Maldivian court – and who’d want that?” the tourism official asked Minivan News.

In the immediate aftermath of what Nasheed’s supporters contend was a coup d’état, “a lot of contracts that are half completed have been stopped, and those by the previous government politicised and halted. We’ve become a nightmare client by not following through on agreements,” the official told Minivan News.

“Anyone who has not been paid for goods delivered is in a bad situation right now – it’s not good for our reputation,” he said.

Wider economic impact

The tourism industry is not only culturally insulated from the rest of the Maldives, but also economically.

Most resorts charge in dollars – a practice that technically contravenes monetary authority regulations but is widely overlooked – and bank overseas in more financially and politically-stable economies, such as Singapore.

Beyond import duties, credit card fees and assorted taxes, very little foreign currency trickles into the country, given the size of the tourism industry. Which, with the introduction of the 3.5 percent tourism GST last year, was found to be two to three times larger than previous estimates.

At the same time, with little to no demand for the local currency at even a transactional level, the rest of country suffers from an enduring dollar shortage.

Furthermore, 50 percent of tourism industry employees are expatriate and remit their income, while local staff are typically paid in Maldivian rufiya – tips and service charge aside.

The result is a troubled economy that remains dependent on foreign aid, despite having a per-capita income high enough to in 2011 see the Maldives become one of only three countries to ever graduate from the UN’s definition of a Least Developed Country (LDC), to ‘Middle Income’.

That progression limits the country’s access to concessional credit, removes certain trade concessions, and some donor aid – as well creating a perception in the donor community that the Maldives is ‘less deserving’ than countries still on the LDC list.

Swedish Ambassador accredited to the Maldives, Lars-Olof Lindgren, said as much in May 2011. Sweden, he said, “has very strict of GDP per-capita criteria and has decided to focus its aid elsewhere on least developed countries, particularly in Africa.”

“At the same time, certainly I think we have to look at other aspects of the Maldives – the fact the country taking first steps as a democratic country, steps towards getting the party system to work – that is one reason why the international community should support this – support not only government, but the whole society,” he told Minivan News last year.

Climate aid to a great extent filled the void, with countries ranging from Denmark to the US lining up to commit to infrastructure projects – harbours, water treatment plants, waste management centres – under the banner of climate adaption and mitigation.

Much of that was prompted by Nasheed’s high profile on the world stage as an environmental campaigner, with wealthy countries happy to share the limelight and demonstrate eco-credentials to their own, increasingly climate-conscious public.

That environmental focus also “absolutely changed how the destination was marketed”, the tourism official told Minivan News.

“Nasheed was synonymous with that, and the photo of the underwater cabinet meeting is one of the most famous in the Maldives. It was a brilliant gimmick that summed up the challenges,” he said.

Now, several foreign diplomats from current donors have privately expressed concern that with the political instability, Commonwealth jitters and contentious legitimacy of the new government, such funding will be a harder sell to the public and aid agencies in their home countries: “We will fulfill our existing commitments,” one promised.

The Chinese bellwether

The weathervane on the Maldivian tourism economy is likely to be the Chinese market. With belts tightening in the Maldives’ traditional lucrative markets in Europe – particularly Italy and the UK – surging interest in the Maldives tourism product from China has cushioned the industry in the wake of the 2008 financial economic crisis.

In the first seven months of 2011, Chinese visitors accounted for 19.9 percent of the total arrivals. By the end of the year the figure had increased to 23 percent – figures backed by Beijing’s stamp of approval that the Maldives was an acceptable destination for Chinese tour operators to send customers by the thousand.

“We don’t deal with numbers like that from any other country,” the tourism official told Minivan News.

“Chinese guests tend to respect authority – and currently the Chinese government is saying that the situation is OK. As soon as the Chinese authorities say they are concerned, 23 percent of the market will disappear. We can regard the Chinese as either directly in or out,” he said.

Adheeb observed that the Chinese market was “sensitive to international headlines”.

There had been a dip in Chinese arrivals, he noted, but this could be attributed to the aftermath of Chinese New Year.

Sim said the Chinese market was “particularly vulnerable, as they make decisions based on information they are given. It has been Chinese New Year so the dropoff in numbers is hard to separate from those put off by the political unrest,” he said.

Most Chinese arrivals come through package tour operators, who are extremely sensitive to travel warnings. The Chinese government currently has no warning for the Maldives, however neighbouring Hong Kong on February 8 placed the country on an “amber alert”, alongside Pakistan, Russia and Iran.

The language barrier can complicate efforts to reassure the market, particularly on the Chinese side.

One Shanghai-based travel agent, Sun Yi, told Minivan News she was faced with many cancellations just two days after the events of February 7.

”It has seriously affected our business. Many guests cancelled the Maldivian holiday package which used to be very popular,” she explained, adding that her company had suspended plans to hold a commerical event at a Maldives resort this spring.

“Quite a lot of Chinese customers are very concerned of this situation. Some of them are hesitant to make reservations now,” said Emy Zheng, a Chinese national working at Villuxa Holidays.

Recent reports in Chinese media have been reassuring: one honeymooner, Zhou Xiaoyi, told China Daily that he had considered cancelling his trip, but had only been offered a 2.5 percent refund on his prepaid ticket.

“The travel agency said most of our prepayment had been spent on reservations on flights and hotels,” Xiaoyi told China Daily. “So we decided to come anyway and found that our honeymoon was little influenced. We also saw other Chinese people here.”

Much of the tourism industry in the Maldives maintains a wary distance from Maldivian politics, but ongoing political turbulence, protests, confrontational rhetoric, dark mutterings from the staff quarters and ultimately an economic threat such as a loan crisis or plunge in Chinese interest could haul the problem into the industry’s backyard.

With 70 percent of the economy at stake, were that to happen the matter of the government’s legitimacy and the colour of the flag in the President’s office would fast become the least of the country’s worries.

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Resolving judicial crisis “a huge challenge” for the Maldives: President Nasheed

Judges in the Maldives were reappointed by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) at the conclusion of the interim period “in conflict with the constitution”, President Mohamed Nasheed has said during his weekly radio address.

The JSC reappointed the vast majority of sitting judges prior to parliament approving a statute establishing the criteria for serving on the bench, Nasheed said.

The consequence – a judiciary almost identical as the one appointed by the former Ministry of Justice under the previous government, but badged as independent – was “a huge challenge” for the Maldives, he added.

Prior to the reappointments, the President’s Office in May 2010 sent a letter to the JSC expressing concern that a large number of judges lacked both the educational qualifications and ethical conduct required of judges in a democracy.

“While the Act relating to Judges was passed in August 2010, and while the Constitution is very clear that Judges cannot be appointed without this Act, to date the JSC has failed to reappoint Judges,” Nasheed said.

“The Supreme Court Judges were appointed in accordance with the Constitution and law. The High Court bench was appointed in accordance with the Constitution and law. However, it is hard to say that the lower court Judges were appointed as per the Constitution and law,” he contended.

The government has faced critcism from the opposition and weeks of opposition-led protests, some of them violent, after the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) took Chief Judge of the Criminal Court, Abdulla Mohamed, into custody on January 16.

The government had accused the chief judge of endemic corruption, obstructing police investigations and of links with both the opposition and organised crime. Abdulla Mohamed sought a High Court ruling to prevent his arrest – which was granted – leading police to request the MNDF to take the judge into custody.

The judge was previously under investigation by the JSC – the judicial watchdog body – however he was granted an injunction by the Civil Court which ordere the JSC to halt the investigation.

In his radio address, Nasheed identified four areas of reform under the 2008 constitution: change of regime through multiparty elections, election of a new parliament, introduction of decentralised administration, and election of local councils.

“The major remaining reform envisioned by the Constitution is the establishment of an independent and competent judiciary,” Nasheed said.

The Foreign Ministry has requested a senior international legal delegation from the United Nations Human Rights Commission (OHCHR) to help resolve the current judicial crisis.

Last week, former President’s member on the JSC, Aishath Velezinee, told Minivan News that outside help from an independent and authoritative body such as the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) was desperately needed.

“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,” she said.

“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. The UN had brought in a former Australian Supreme Court Judge, but he didn’t get any support. There was a lady [from Harvard] but she left in tears as well. There was no support – the JSC voted not to even give her a living allowance. They are unwelcoming to knowledge – to everyone. It is a closed place,” she warned, adding the difficulty was enhanced further because all the documentation was in Dhivehi.

UK MP for Salisbury, John Glen, has meanwhile urged UK Parliament to “urgently make time for a debate on judicial reform in the Republic of the Maldives.”

“Although the judiciary is constitutionally independent, sitting judges are underqualified, often corrupt and hostile to the democratically elected regime,” Glen stated.

Leader of the House of Commons, George Young, responded that Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt, was “in touch with the Maldives President to see whether we can resolve the impasse. The high commission in Colombo is also engaged. We want to help the Maldives to make progress towards democratic reform in the direction that John Glen outlines.”

Several hundred opposition protesters meanwhile gathered last night for the second week running, with police arresting several dozen people and deploying pepper spray after the crowd reportedly began hurling paving stones at officers outside the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) building.

MP Ahmed Nihan of former President Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) and recently-resigned SAARC Secretary General Dhiyana Saeed were among those detained by police. Haveeru reported that 17 of the 22 arrested were detained in Dhoonidhoo custodial overnight.

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Committee to set emergency safety measures

The Cabinet appointed a ministerial committee to set emergency safety measures yesterday. The issue was raised after four students and the principal of Hiriya School drowned during a snorkeling excursion in Kaafu atoll Huraa last Friday.

Discussions addressed appropriate emergency preparedness and responsiveness in a crisis, and emphasised the need for the full cooperation from all concerned agencies.

The committee is chaired by Minister of Defence and National Security, Thalhath Ibrahim Kaleyfaanu, and consists of Minister of Home Affairs Hassan Afeef, Minister of Transport and Communication Mohamed Adil Saleem, Minister of Housing and Environment Mohamed Aslam, Minister of Education Shifa Mohamed and Minister of Health and Family Dr Aminath Jameel.

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Partisan politics triggers constitutional meltdown

The Maldives faces a constitutional meltdown following a difference of opinion between opposition parties and the government regarding the legitimacy of institutions such as the Supreme Court, after the transition period expired last night.

According to the government’s interpretation, institutions such as the civil service commission, Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) and the courts ceased to have legitimacy on conclusion of the interim period at midnight, after parliament failed to legislate for their continuity.

The Attorney General resigned this morning, claiming that while he had some responsibility for the ‘constitutional void’, a great deal more lay with the opposition-majority parliament and Speaker Abdulla Shahid, an MP of the main opposition DRP.

President Mohamed Nasheed had nominated a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and was reportedly waiting for parliament to pass a bill on judges to determine how many more justices should be elected to the bench, however the Speaker cancelled the session prior to the deadline despite expressing earlier confidence that the interim matters would be resolved before the deadline.

“The Majlis failed to get its work done on time. This left the President with two options: allow the country to have no Supreme Court at all; or issue a decree so at least the administrative functions of the Supreme Court can continue. The President chose the latter option,” said Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair.

Nasheed issued a decree at midnight that the trial courts – the Criminal and High Courts – would continue to function, while the interim appellate court consisting of four members “of high repute” would oversee the administrative aspects of the Supreme Court, such as receiving appeals.

“We hope Majlis members will hurry up and pass the required legislation so the court can function as envisaged under the Constitution,” Zuhair said.

However the four members of the government’s short-lived appellate court resigned this afternoon, Zuhair later confirmed, citing commitment to other duties but most likely seeking to avoid the political cross hairs aimed at the positions.

Moreover, the Civil Court today ruled that the Supreme Court bench remains valid, and that the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) was obliged to return the keys to the building to the sitting judges.

The government will appeal in the High Court – despite the resignation of the Attorney General – using the MNDF, which has its own lawyers, Zuhair stated.

Similarly, the opposition argues that under Article 284 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court is not beholden to the interim deadline and is obliged to function as normal, until the new court is appointed by parliament.

Article 284 under the chapter on transitional matters reads: “The Supreme Court appointed pursuant to this Chapter shall continue until the establishment of the Supreme Court”.

“There’s no argument about it; it’s very clear,” said former Attorney General Azima Shukoor, legal representation to opposition People’s Alliance (PA) MP Abdulla Yameen, whom the government detained for more than a week on accusations of treason and bribery.

“There are no issues with dates – [the Constitution] very clearly states that there has to be a Supreme Court of five members. The government is trying to take control of the judiciary.”

The government contends that the entire chapter on transitional matters – including Article 284 and others governing the interim Supreme Court – were annulled at the conclusion of the transitional period last night, plunging the country into a “constitutional void” following parliament’s failure to legislate the continuation of several institutions.

President’s member on the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), Aishath Velezinee, said the clause relating to the Supreme Court was “not indefinite”, and referred to appointment of judges “at any time within the two year transitional time period.”

“[Husnu Suood] was arguing last night that parliament needed to meet before midnight and approve an extension of the interim period, which seemed like a very sensible thing to do,” Velezinee said. “If [parliament] were working in good faith, they would have done that.”

Writing on his personal blog, independent MP for Kulhudhufushi South, Mohamed Nasheed, who was the legal reform minister when the constitution was ratified, concurred that the country had “officially fallen into a constitutional void” following parliament’s failure to complete transitional matters in the two year period set by the constitution.

Nasheed, who first warned of the repercussions of missing the constitutional deadline for last year’s parliamentary elections, argues that institutions or posts created after a constitutionally stipulated deadline would not be legitimate.

As a consequence, he writes, the legal status of parliament, the Elections Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission were in doubt, as all three were formed after the deadlines elapsed.

Moreover, he added, the deadline for local council elections passed in July 2009, the new Supreme Court has not been formed, the reappointment of judges was questionable, lower courts had not been instituted and an Auditor General as well as members to the Civil Service Commission and Human Rights Commission are yet to be appointed.

That both the executive and legislature had failed to deliver the lawful state envisioned in the Constitution, Nasheed writes, was a source of “shame and sadness”.

With the two main parties at loggerheads, Nasheed writes that the distance between the parties has only grown and there was no longer an environment conducive to political negotiation and compromise.

Instead of assigning blame, he urged, both sides should be looking for a solution to the crisis.

As a solution, Nasheed suggested the parliament complete transitional matters as soon as possible, and then call a public referendum to determine whether citizens approved of the post-interim process.

The referendum could be held concurrently with local council elections, he suggested, whereby citizens could be asked to endorse new provisions inserted to the constitution to legitimise the “belated” institutions.

“If a solution cannot be found within the constitution, shouldn’t we get the direct say of citizens?” he asked.

Meanwhile, in an possible bid to encourage the opposition to return to the chamber, the Foreign Ministry has suspended the ambassadors to Sri Lanka, China, and Saudi Arabia, all three of whom were appointed by the former administration and were not endorsed by parliament prior to the interim deadline.

The government has also been negotiating with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) to send a mission to the Maldives to help establish an independent judiciary.

Commonwealth Secretariat Spokesperson Eduardo del Buey confirmed the Commonwealth Secretariat had received a request from the government of Maldives “for assistance in constituting an interim appellate court drawn from Commonwealth judges.”

“We are considering this request as a priority, and will respond to the Government shortly. In responding, we will be discussing with the Government how best to ensure adherence to the Latimer House Principles, which define the separation of the three branches of Government and to which all Commonwealth governments have committed themselves,” del Buey said.

Velezinee has also called for the mediation of the UN Special Rapporteur on Independent Judiciary, claiming that she did not believe anyone in the country would be trusted enough by both sides to establish the core institution.

Despite the burgeoning political crisis of the the last few days, and aside from minor scuffles between protesters outside parliament last night, Male’ has been relatively calm and turmoil largely restricted to the political echelons.

The holy month of Ramadan begins on August 11, when the pace in the normally frenetic capital typically slows considerably.

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Government faces “serious international pressure” over detention of Yameen, claims DQP

The Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) has claimed the government will face “serious international pressures” if opposition People’s Alliance leader and Mulaku MP Abdulla Yameen is not released in the next seven days.

“The Qaumee Party has undertaken important efforts in the international arena towards this end,” reads a press statement the party issued today, adding that a delegation of DQP officials, including Dr Hassan Saeed and Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, were currently in the United Kingdom.

“If President Mohamed Nasheed’s government does not release the political party leaders arrested and kidnapped in violation of the laws and constitution in the next seven days, the Maldivian government will have to face serious international pressure.”

It adds that the government and President Nasheed would have to bear “full responsibility” for any possible international restrictions.

Yameen and Jumhoree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim were taken into police custody after the government accused them of bribery and treason in a ‘cash-for-votes’ scandal at parliament. Several tapped phone conversations to this effect were leaked to the press shortly afterwards.

After the High Court ruled the pair would be kept under house arrest for 15 days while the case was investigated, an appeal to the Supreme Court resulted to their release early last week, on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Yesterday police complained their investigation into the allegations of parliamentary corruption were being obstructed by the judiciary, after senior police investigating the case were suspended from appearing in court.

The DQP today claimed that President Nasheed’s detention of Yameen after his repeated calls for the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung Sun Suu Ki, showed a “lack of sincerity,” and urged the government to accept international offers of mediation.

“Confused and grieving”

Meanwhile Yameen, who is currently under the ‘protection’ of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) at the Presidential retreat ‘Aarah’, spoke to Minivan News today and said his family are “confused and grieving” at his detention.

Yameen said the MNDF were treating him “very well” at Aarah, and that he had no complaints about this, however he was unable to meet with anyone and was “stranded.”

‘’I was not brought here upon my request, [the MNDF] requested I go with them, in order to cool down the situation of Male’,’’ Yameen said. “I asked them to allow me the chance to go on my own, to any island I wished. MNDF officers tried to [accommodate this], but the political appointees in the MNDF security council denied my request. When I refused to go with them, the two officers who came to take me told me that their superiors had ordered them to take me by force if I refused to come along.’’

“I do not want that protection from them, and I have told them,’’ Yameen told Minivan News, proposing that his detention was one of the actions Nasheed had recently said would be “out of the chart.”

‘’My whole family is now consumed with confusion and grief; I have a small child who is attending a pre-school,’’ he said.

President Mohamed Nasheed said in his weekend radio address that isolated political appointees would remain isolated was a reference to him, Yameen claimed.

“When I knew the MNDF planned to bring me here, I requested they bring one of my lawyers with me, to make sure that the MNDF was taking me to Aarah,’’ he said, “but they denied my request.”

Yameen said he had asked the MNDF when he would be freed, but they had replied they “did not know what to say about that.”

‘’It is unlawful and illegal to keep someone isolated, in the name of providing security, against his will,’’ Yameen alleged. “This government is a dictatorship ruling arbitrarily using the power of the fist.’’

He called on the armed forces to work within by the law and to understand that they were accountable and responsible for their actions.

Meanwhile, the main opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) has commenced a series of protests demanding the release of the opposition leader and calling the government to conclude its “unlawful acts”.

DRP MP Ahmed Nihan claimed that the government was to be blamed for the recent unrest and violence in Male’.

”They caused it so they could arrest Yameen, they created the scene that Male’ was in chaos,” said Nihan.

”It was not the real Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) activists who were out on the streets that day, I can recognise their faces. They were boys that belong to different areas of Male’, even the police will know them.”

Nihan said DRP protests would be “a series of peaceful gatherings” in front of DRP’s head office.

”Yameen’s arrest violates the chapter on freedom in the constitution,” he added.

Press secretary for the president’s office, Mohamed Zuhair, said Yameen requested MNDF provide him security and that he was not allowed to go to any island he wished, because they felt they were best able to protect him at Aarah.

Acting outside the law

Independent MP Mohamed ‘Kutti’ Nasheed said on his blog that he interpreted Nasheed’s “acting outside of the chart” as meaning “acting outside of the constitution”.

MP Nasheed, who has acknowledged asking MP Gasim for “cash” but denies allegations of corruption and misconduct, said he believed he might “also be isolated in this manner.”

“Whether [isolation] is constitutional, or can be done with the existing laws, is another question,” he said.

As a consequence, Nasheed warns, the system put in place by the constitution and its authority is undermined and “the rights and powers guaranteed by the constitution come to an end.”

“[This was a] purposeful violation of the constitution by an act, definitely deliberate and forewarned, carried out in [a presidency] was given after swearing to rule in accordance with the constitution,” he writes.

The constitution was drafted in light of “years of experience where all the powers of the state were concentrated in the presidency”, he continues, and prioritises separation of powers, checks and balances and protection of fundamental rights over “the convenience of the president”.

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