Q&A: Aishath Velezinee on plots, power and treason

The international community has urged the Maldives executive to respect the rule of law in negotiating a solution to its current political deadlock with the Majlis (parliament), and in handling its accusations of corruption and treason against several prominent MPs and high-profile businessmen.

In a democracy the judiciary is the crucial arbitrator of any such disputes between the other two arms of government. But Aishath Velezinee, the President’s Member of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), the independent institution tasked with reforming the judiciary and ensuring both its independence and accountability to the public, believes the current state of the judiciary renders it unfit to do so.

Article 285 of the Constitution outlines an interim period for the reappointment of the judiciary by the JSC, according to minimum standards, with a deadline of August 7, 2010. After this, a judge may only be removed for gross incompetency or misconduct in a resolution passed by a two-thirds majority in parliament – the same number required for impeaching the President or Vice President.

Last week the JSC reappointed 160 of the judges appointed by the former government, despite a quarter of the bench possessing criminal records and many others with only primary school level education. The Supreme Court meanwhile sent the President a letter claiming it had ruled itself tenure for life.

Velezinee blows the whistle, speaking to Minivan News about the JSC’s failure to ensure the accountability of the judiciary, the compromise of its own independence at the hands of the Majlis – and the ramifications for the country in the lead up to the August deadline.

JJ Robinson: What is the function of the Judicial Services Commission?

Aishath Velezinee: The main function of the JSC – as I see it – is to maintain judicial integrity, and to build public confidence in the judiciary and individual judges.

The way we would do it under a democratic governance structure would be to hear the complaints of the people, and to look into these matters objectively and independently, and take action if necessary, to assure the public there is no hanky-panky [going on].

But instead of that, we are putting out press releases saying things like: “You can’t criticise judges”, “You can’t criticise the judiciary”, and ‘‘the president is exercising influence over judges”.

JJ: So the JSC is working as shield organisation for judges rather than as a watchdog?

AV: Very much. It is a shield for judges, and the evidence for that is very obvious. We have all this evidence in the media now from what is happening in the criminal court – a fact is a fact.

Why did [Criminal Court] Judge Abdulla Mohamed open the Criminal Court at midnight when two high-profile [opposition MPs Abdulla Yameen and Gasim Ibrahim] were arrested?

From August 2008 to today there have been many instances when the public might have wanted the court to open outside hours. But no – before that day, they have never opened the court out of hours for anybody else.

This was the first time they have done it – and then put out press releases saying it happened at 9pm? This is not the truth. We have evidence it is wrong.

But the Commission takes for granted that whatever the judge says is right. We can’t protect judges and oversee them.

JJ: This was the case taken to the Criminal Court by Yameen’s defence lawyer [former attorney general Azima Shukoor]?

AV: That’s not standard procedure. According to regulations the Criminal Court can only accept submissions from the State.

It would not have been an issue – the defence lawyer would have been given the opportunity to argue the case when the State went to the court. But Yameen’s lawyer initiated it – and got into the Criminal Court in the wee hours of the night – that is strange.

I’m not saying it is right or wrong – I don’t know. But what I do know is that this is out of the ordinary. The JSC has an obligation to the people to ensure the Criminal Court has done nothing wrong.

JJ: How did the JSC react?

AV: They did nothing. Article 22(b) of the Judicial Services Act gives us the power to look into matters arising in public on our own initiative. But what did the JSC do? They said nobody had complained: “We haven’t received an official complaint.” They were waiting for an individual to come and complain.

My experience, from being part of the complaints committee in the JSC, is that whenever a complaint is received, we have two judges on the complaints committee who will defend the [accused] judge, trashing the complainant, and talk about “taking action” against these people “who are picking on judges”.

Then they will put out a press release: “Nobody should interfere with work of judges.” Their interpretation is that “nobody should criticise us. We are above and beyond the law.”

Since January – when the JSC censored its own annual report, despite the law clearly saying what we should include – they decided to hide the names of all judges who had complaints made against them.

Instead, they released the details – including quite private information – about the complainants.

Civil Court judge Mohamed Naeem has "a box-file" of complaints pending, says Velezinee

JJ: What is the current state of the judiciary?

AV: The current judiciary has 198 judges that were appointed prior to this Constitution being adopted. Those judges were appointed by the then-executive: the Ministry of Justice. The appointment procedure, the criteria – none of these were transparent.

They were only given ‘on-the-job’ training. This ‘Certificate in Justice Studies’ they say they have is on-the-job training given after the 1998 Constitution was adopted, to teach them how to run the country according to that Constitution.

How do we expect these people – without exposure to democratic principles and cultures, without exposure to the world, with only basic education, and with only tailor-made on-the-job training for a different Constitution – how do we expect them to respect and uphold this Constitution?

A majority have not even completed primary school. A quarter have criminal convictions: sexual misconduct, embezzlement, violence, disruption of public harmony, all sorts of things – convictions, not accusations.

We are not even looking at the 100 plus complaints we have in the JSC that are unattended to. They have not been tabled. Civil Court Judge Mohamed Naeem has a box-file of complaints against him. And Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed has way too many against him.

JJ: Given the condition of the judiciary, and if the government is in a state of political deadlock with parliament, how is the government able to legitimise accusations against the MPs it has accused of corruption and treason?

AV: That is where we have the problem. The international community seem to have forgotten that this is a new-found democracy. We have in all our institutions people who have been in the previous government. We haven’t changed everybody – and they are still following their own culture, not the law.

How can [the international community] ask for the rule of law to be followed when there are no courts of law? Where are the courts? Where are the judges? A majority never even finished primary school.

Supreme Court Justice and President of the JSC, Mujthaz Fahmy

JJ: What possible reason was there for appointing judges with only primary grade education?

AV: It’s very obvious – just look at the records. As a member of the JSC I have been privy to records kept from before [the current government]. In their files, there are reprimands against judges for not sentencing as they were directed. That was a crime when the Minister of Justice ran the courts. The Ministry of Justice directed judges as to how sentences should be passed, and that was perfectly legitimate under that Constitution.

JJ: Has anything changed since 2008 and when the judges were appointed under the former government?

AV: Yes – what has changed is that [the judges] were freed from the executive. So they are very happy with the freedom they have received. But unfortunately they haven’t understood what that freedom and independence means.

They are looking for a father-figure, and they have found him in the current President of the JSC, Supreme Court Justice Mujthaz Fahmy. He has taken on this role, and he is now the king and father of the judges.

So they are all looking up to him to protect their interests. If you look at all the press releases from the Judges’ Association – which is run from Mujthaz Fahmy’s home address – he makes arbitrary decisions in the JSC and then puts out press statements from this organisation run from his home, to defend his own position.

We are in a very big game. Mujthaz Fahmy has been under the thumb of the former executive for way too long – the man is going on 50, he has been on the bench for 25 years, he has never had anybody come and argue with him – he can’t stand anybody who challenges him. So he’s got a problem with me sitting on the Commission because I do not take his word as the law. The man thinks that anything that comes out of his mouth is the law, and the majority of the JSC members take it as a fact.

But if you look into the documentation, if you look into the recordings – nothing that comes out of that man’s mouth will hold. Those interviews he is giving, all he is using is this image he has built up of himself as ‘the esteemed justice’. That is what he is using to convince the public that he is right. And they are trashing me in public and in biased media, just so people do not listen to me.

I do not ask anybody to take my word. I am saying: hear the recordings in the commission. Listen to what they say.

They have this belief that whatever happens in the Commission must be kept a secret amongst ourselves. This was run like a secret society – we have a pact of secrecy amongst us. I broke it, because I do not believe in tyranny of the majority. What we are seeing here is a repeat of what happened in the High Court in January, what we are currently seeing happen in the Majlis, and the same things are now happening in the JSC.

Elements of the parliament are collaborating with the JSC, says Velezinee

JJ: What are the links between the Majlis and the judiciary?

AV: That is a very serious issue. I am currently sitting on this seat as the President’s appointed member of the JSC, but prior to this, I was was the member of the general public appointed by the Majlis. They have forgotten that part.

I have brought this to Majlis attention. When the Commission voted on what I call the minimum ‘sub-standards’ for the judiciary, I sent a complaint to the Majlis. The same letter I sent to the President and the President of the Law Society. I sent it to the Speaker of the Majlis, as well as the chair of the Independent Commissions Committee, Mohamed Mujthaz.

When the JSC finalised the ‘substandards’, the Majlis into recess. So I went to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), because it was the only constitutional structure where I could go to hold the JSC accountable. It is rather odd for one Commission member to go to another commission and ask them to investigate her own commission.

I met the ACC on May 12. The JSC say they adopted the substandards on May 11. Later I collected all the documentation, and wrote a report – because this is not going to be something easy to investigate. This is a whole conspiracy cooked up from the time the JSC was initially constituted. It has been planned, and it is very clear this is a plot.

When the Majlis reopened in June, I sent an official complaint to the Independent Commissions Committee which they accepted. On June 16, the Majlis wrote two letters to the JSC, one letter requesting all documentation and recordings relating to Article 285 – my complaint.

The JSC is not respecting Constitution and is doing as it pleases. Their disregard of Article 285, and their decision to adopt substandards for judges, comes from their belief in a promise made by the former government.

They do not refer to the Constitution in adopting the standards. They refer to conversations they had with the majority party at that time, a delegation led by our dear JSC President, Mujthaz Fahmy. He and a team of judges met with the politicians to negotiate a guarantee that no judge would be removed under the new Constitution.

Although we have Article 285 in the Constitution – to give the people a judiciary they can trust and respect – we have the President of the Commission responsible for the implementation of this article working on this political understanding with the former government.

This is very clear from the recordings.

All I’m asking is for third party to look into this – and that third party is the Majlis. After the Majlis took all the documentation and recordings, they had requested the JSC meet with the Majlis Independent Commissions Committee at 2:30pm on June 23.

If you go back to your news files, that was the day when the Majlis floor heated up. Since then the Speaker [DRP MP Abdulla Shahid] has suspended the Majlis.

The committee accepted the complaint – if they had not, they would not have asked us to come and discuss this with them.

I believe the speaker is taking undue advantage of this political crisis. The Speaker of the Majlis is now coming and sitting in the JSC [office] day and night, during Friday, holidays and Independence Day. The Speaker is sitting in the JSC trying to expedite this process of reappointing judges before the Majlis starts on August 1. What is going on here?

The Supreme Court, formerly the Presidential Palace

JJ: What is going on?

AV: I believe that when the Majlis was suspended, they should have directed the JSC to at least halt what was going on until they have looked into the matter. It is a very serious complaint I have made – it is a very serious allegation. And if that allegation and complaint is unfounded, I am willing to stand before the people, in Republic Square, and be shot.

I believe we have all the evidence we need to look into this matter – but under this Constitution, we have to go to the Majlis. But where is the Majlis? And what is the Speaker doing in the JSC?

What about all those other complaints? The Commission’s president is not letting us work on them. We have in our rules that any member can ask for a matter to be tabled. I asked him to look into the matter – and do you know what he did? He sent me a letter to my home address – as though I was not a member of the Commission – and asked me to write it in a proper form and bring it to the attention [of reception].

The JSC has decided Article 285 is symbolic, that article 22(b) does not exist, while the esteemed people of the law in the commission, include the Commission President, Supreme Court Justice Mujthaz Fahmy, explain to me that article 22(b) gives me the power to write a letter, fill in a form and submit a complaint. I asking – why did the drafters of this law put in a clause to give me a right I already have as any ordinary citizen?

Where we are right now – with the lack of confidence in the judiciary – it all lies with Mujthaz Fahmy.

JJ: What do you mean when you talk about “a plot”? How interconnected is this?

AV: They are trying to expedite the reappointment of judges without looking into my complaint. If you look into my complaint, you will find this has been done in an unconstitutional way.

What they are doing right now is going to kill the Constitution.

We are not going to consolidate democracy if they succeed in getting away with what they are doing right now. The Speaker has suspended the Majlis whilst a very serious complaint is with the Majlis committee, and now he is sitting in the JSC doing this.

If there is a matter pending in a court of law, usually they ask for a court order until the matter is settled. You don’t just carry on as if nothing is happening.

We have a petition signed by 1562 people – the JUST campaign – calling for an honest and impartial judiciary. This was not even put on the Commission’s agenda – it said it did not find it necessary to take it into account, and on that day I was not given opportunity to participate because on the agenda was the matter of approving judges under the substandards.

We are asked to put before any other matter the people, and the Constitution. Instead, the Commission is working in the interests of these individual few judges who have hijacked the judiciary. Mujthaz Fahmy must go.

JJ: So these Commission members met with politicians from the former government, to obtain a guarantee that sitting judges would remain on the bench, and not be subject to reappointment under Article 285? What do the politicians get back from the judges?

AV: We are talking about corruption. The change in government came in 2008 because people were fed up with a corrupt administration and autocratic governance.

But all those people who were in power entered parliament. The Speaker, who is right now sitting in the JSC working night and day expediting the reappointment of the judges, was also part of that administration. It is within their interest to keep this judiciary here, and not work in the interests of this Constitution, or the People.

Their personal interests take precedence over everything else. I’m afraid that is what we are seeing.

JJ: Do you feel the media has been taking this case seriously enough?

AV: I’ve been writing to all the concerned authorities since Januruary. I’ve been going on and on about the JSC and the dictatorship within it for a long, long time. I knew where we were heading, I have been warning the Majlis and talking to people from various parties. I have been talking about Article 285 for so long that I have become ‘the old article 285 madwoman.’

JJ: Do you think the current political crisis can be resolved without a functioning judiciary?

AV: Absolutely not. But then a functioning judiciary cannot be introduced without this crisis being resolved. How can the international community ask for the rule of law to be followed when there are no courts of law?

We need an impartial investigation of what is going on. And I believe the Maldives does not have anyone able to conduct an impartial investigation. We need assistance – the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) should be here. The UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of the Judiciary should be here, right now.

This is not the fault of the judiciary. We have a large bench, and most of the judges have absolutely no idea about what is going on. They have not even been given orientation on the new Constitution.

I had the opportunity to meet magistrates from four Atolls. They know the law. But what they need is a basic understanding of the principles of this Constitution, of the foundations of democracy. Because it is through those lenses that they should be interpreting the Constitution.

I am not in favour of the removal of all judges. But I demand that all judges with criminal records be removed – they should not be sitting there even now, and there’s 40-50 of them – a quarter of the bench.

Why is the JSC remaining silent? Why is the Speaker of the Majlis in the JSC [office]? By his silence, and through the act of suspending the Majlis, the Speaker has given the JSC the opportunity to complete this act of treason they are currently committing.

The deadline for the judicial reform period under the new constitution in August 7. The Speaker and the President of the JSC are working overtime to get all these judges reappointed before the Majlis restarts on August 1. That is treason.

Supreme Court Judge Uz Ahmed Faiz Hussain, the President's nomination for Chief Justice

JJ: What benefit would outside arbitration bring?

AV: It is difficult because all our documentation is in Dhivehi. But we need an independent and impartial body to look into this properly. Forget listening to me or Mujthaz. Forget listening to politicians, and investigate. We need an impartial mediator.

It is very easy for the international community to turn around and blame the executive for taking a dictatorial attitude. We are demanding the executive uphold the rule of law. But what about the Majlis? Where is the rule of law when the Speaker suspends the Majlis and hides in the JSC expediting the reappointment of judges? Where are the courts to go to?

We need the public to understand the Constitution, and we need all duty-bearers to uphold the Constitution. I’m afraid half the members of the JSC do not understand the principles of democracy or the role of the JSC, or the mandate we have. Then there are a few who understand it very well but remain silent while all this goes on

JJ: The President recently nominated Supreme Court Judge Uz Ahmed Faiz Hussain as the new Chief Justice, and is awaiting Majlis approval. How likely is this to resolve the current situation, given the Majlis is currently suspended?

AV: Uz Ahmed Faiz Hussain is a well-respected man amongst the judges. I have never heard anybody question his independence or impartiality. He is a learned man and amongst all the politicking and hanky-panky going on, he has maintained his integrity.

But the Majlis has to appoint him and the Majlis may not even get that far – the Supreme Court has already declared itself permanent.

I’m telling you: this is big. What we are seeing is all interconnected – it is one big plot to try – in any way possible – to return power to the corrupt.