Q&A: MP Ahmed Abdulla – Ihavandhoo constituency

In a series of interviews to lead into the the 2014 parliamentary elections – scheduled for March 22nd – Minivan News will be sitting down with incumbent MPs.

All 77 sitting members have been contacted, from across the political spectrum, to be asked a standardised set of questions with additional topicals. The interviews will be published as and when they are received.

As part of the series, Minivan News talked to MP Ahmed Abdulla.

MP Ahmed Abdulla represents the Ihavandhoo constituency in Haa Alif atoll, and is a member of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

Ahmed Naish: What made you enter the political arena and how?

Ahmed Abdulla: I entered the political arena at a time when citizens began efforts to make changes to the government after a long autocratic rule. I actually started working in the political arena before political parties were introduced in the country. But back then, we had to work individually or alone and very much in hiding. I got into politics before political parties were formed and started functioning. I was in government but left because of dissatisfaction with how things were back then and started working in politics.

AN: Based on your attendance and work in the last term, how would you judge your performance as an MP?

AA: I believe I have quite adequately fulfilled the responsibility entrusted to me by the people. I have attended Majlis sittings without fail. I took leave for very few sittings. In terms of attendance, I am among the MPs with the best attendance records. If we consider the Majlis’ performance, on every bill or every issue I raised my voice and said what I had to on that issue in the national and public interest. Especially on matters related to my constituency, I worked that way. So I am satisfied with my performance. The public also accepts my performance.  

AN: What are the main committees you were acting on? What particular bills did you focus on?

AA: My work is done mainly on the rules committee. As you know, the rules committee reviews regulations concerning the work of all government institutions and ministries and decides on changes. I have done a lot of hard work especially on regulations about tobacco, children, housing and a number of other regulations. I have chaired the rules committee as well during a lot of meetings. Majlis records will show how our work proceeded in those meetings that I chaired.

The second committee is our independent institutions committee. In that committee as well, I have worked to ensure independence for institutions, facilitate their functioning independent of government influence, and encourage them not to bow to pressure or restrictions from the government. We saw the results of that work. For example, we especially saw with the Elections Commission, as a result of our encouragement to work independently without bowing to the government, that they worked very independently in the last presidential election. That was the work of our committee and I performed my role well.

My biggest concern when I came into the People’s Majlis was the state of the Maldives’ property laws and the mortgage bill as well as various other laws dealing with child sexual abuse and gang crimes. I was the one who submitted the political parties bill. When political parties formed and became active, I believed they did not have the space legally to function optimally. I submitted the political parties bill to the Majlis, in accordance with the views of our party. I also submitted the mortgage bill. The political parties bill has now become law. The mortgage bill is in the process of becoming law. Efforts are also underway to amend the property laws to make citizens landowners, allow them to register their property and get rid of obstacles or difficulties in registering land. That bill has been drafted and, God willing, it will be submitted during the next session.

AN: What would you say are the biggest achievements within your term; in terms of what you have accomplished for your constituency and the country as a whole?

AA: I believe I did a lot of work on the gang crimes and weapons bill as well as on the research part for the child sexual abuse bill, especially regarding punishments for child sex offenders in light of the expert technical assistance we got for the bill. I worked hard to ensure that the punishments would be harsh and could not be reduced. God willing those efforts were successful. As a result, we made significant advances in ensuring legal protection for children. Likewise on the political parties bill, my thinking was to ensure that a party is empowered and able to be active in the political sphere. For that there has to be a sufficient number of people as members of a party. It was my initiative, my proposal, to require a certain number of party members and determine factors to be considered by the state before providing funding. I took the lead with these efforts and communicated with different parties. As a result, I believe the efforts were successful and the bill was passed the way we wanted and in line with our proposals.

AN: What would you say is the biggest mistake or worst step you have taken in your career? Why?

AA: I do not believe I have made a mistake in my work in the Majlis. As I am someone who is always mindful of present circumstances and prioritises progress for citizens, I do not believe I have made a mistake. Neither my constituents nor any others have brought something specific to my attention as a mistake I have made. So I believed I have worked adequately and well enough.

AN: Are you taking the optional committee allowance of an additional MVR 20,000? Why or why not?

AA: I did not support taking the committee allowance. I did not vote for it. However, as you know, the work of the People’s Majlis is concluded by the will of the majority and its decisions are approved by the majority. So when it was decided to provide a committee allowance, I don’t really want to not take it. I take the allowance. However, based on the income I receive from the People’s Majlis and given the way my work is organised, the true benefit [of the committee allowance] will be for the people.

AN: What is your view about parliamentarians and other public servants declaring their financial assets publicly for the electorate to be able to refer to?

AA: I have no problem with [publicly declaring assets]. I have nothing to hide. It is not a problem at all for me for the public to know what I own or do not own.

I believe we are the representatives of the people. I believe the public should know of our affluence or our financial capability and our wealth when we came into Majlis and how much it changed after we [became MPs] – I believe the public has a right to know these things. I don’t believe our affairs should be hidden from the public.

AN: Are you re-contesting in the next elections? What do you hope to accomplish should you be elected for a new term?

AA: Yes, I am contesting for the same constituency. I have received cooperation and assistance from my constituents and I believe I have their support as well.

In truth, I want to see Maldivian citizens enjoy complete domestic or internal independence. I do not believe our citizens have proper domestic independence or freedom at present. We have to do a lot of work to that end. In addition to that, we have work to do to ensure financial independence for citizens. Our economic policy and business policies should be framed to ensure financial independence for citizens and the required legal framework should be completed. If we are unable to work to that end, I do not believe we can save our citizens from financial slavery. I believe as long as citizens are not free from financial or monetary slavery, they will not be able to vote freely the way they want. So I believe we have a lot of hard work to do to achieve this. We have to shape the economy and our policies to ensure positive changes to the standard of living for the people. This is necessary for a free and fair election and ensuring the right to vote freely. So I believe these things need to be done in the country despite the challenges.

AN: What improvements do you feel the 18th parliament will need to make to improve as an institution?

AA: To improve the Majlis as an institution, we need to learn to work professionally. The progress that our citizens want to see is unlikely to be achieved if we cannot learn to work professionally. Under some circumstances, there are certain challenges to working that way. That might be because our democracy is in its infancy or it could be a problem we face because we are not fully ready or mature for democracy. But I believe the 18th Majlis will be one where we work professionally, more actively and with a better discipline than at present.

AN: What are your thoughts on party switching – do you think it undermines the party system?

AA: I believe switching parties is a betrayal of the public. That betrayal is not something we can accept. I certainly do not believe that changing parties is something that could be done. There are lots of reasons. For example, a candidate contests on an MDP ticket for a Majlis seat. A lot of people does a lot of hard work with that person, including the hard work and money of a lot of people who are loyal to the party. We have to respect those people. They would not want to see the result of their hard work being the MP going to another party when he is elected. So I believe there should be legal obstacles to it as well and that discipline must be maintained to respect the public. I do not support changing parties at all. I do not think [MPs] should be able to do it either.

AN: What is your view about the current judiciary and what steps do you believe can be taken to improve it?

AA: The judiciary is an institution that needs to gain public confidence. The public perception of the judiciary today is poor, unfortunate and sad. The public senses that it is a place more likely to commit injustices than provide justice. If this is the case, it’s a loss to the nation in every sense. The lack of the means to establish justice impartially among the people is a serious misfortune. Likewise, if we consider investors, there are problems that arise due to the weakness of the judiciary.

People are reluctant to invest in the Maldives. So considering all this, we need to establish a sound judiciary in the country. To do that, we need to reshape the system to ensure justice. I do not believe there is room to work independently of political influence because of the way the judiciary is organised and because of the composition of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). Given the composition of the JSC, there are a number of members who could only remain in the commission with the approval of politicians. So I believe we need to change that situation. There must be a way to work in the JSC without being subject to the influence of politicians.

The parent institution for judges is the JSC. Judges exert strong influence on the JSC, too. If this is the case, they would face obstacles to working independently. We need big changes to the system to reform all this – changes to the rules governing hiring, the appointment and dismissal of judges. We need to make the JSC an institution that can work independently and free of external influences. There is a lot of work to be done to reform the judiciary. It will not be easy. But it is something that has to be done for the future of the country and the prosperity and contentment of future generations. I wish to see the judiciary reformed and functioning properly.


“Courageous and exemplary work”: President dismisses JSC Velezinee

President Mohamed Nasheed has removed the President’s member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), Aishath Velezinee, from her post.

“There was no reason given. All I can say is that the President is extremely grateful for the courageous and exemplary work Velezinee has done,” said Nasheed’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair, adding that a new member would soon be appointed.

Minivan News understands that Velezinee’s departure from the JSC may be part of a back room deal not unrelated to impending judicial reform, opposition MPs crossing the floor and the arrest of former government officials on allegations of torture.

Velezinee herself was not commenting on the decision.

One woman army

Velezinee became an outspoken whistle-blower on the JSC last year after claiming that her many letters of concern to parliament – which provides oversight on the independent commissions – were being ignored.

In early 2010, she set about publicly exposing the independent institution she claimed was operating “like a secret society” and serving as a “shield” for a judiciary that was “independent in name only”, and had tabled only several of the hundreds of complaints submitted against judges.

Using her access to court documents, Velezinee revealed that almost a quarter of the sitting judges had criminal records – ranging from theft to terrorism – and that an even greater number had not even completed grade 7 education. The only qualification of many was a ‘Diploma in Judging’ presenting to them by the former Ministry of Justice, Velezinee contested.

For the past 30 years judges effectively worked as the employees of those “hand-picked” by the former government, Velezinee explained – to the extent that failures to extend a particular ruling as required by the Ministry of Justice resulted in a black mark on the judge’s file.

“The only qualification it appears was a willingness to submit to the will of the government at the time – to follow orders,” Velezinee told Minivan News is a previous interview.

“Not everyone has the mindset to follow orders and serve in that kind of capacity. I believe it has excluded people with independent thinking, or the necessary legal knowledge – such people would take it as an insult for someone to order them how to decide a case.”

Velezinee’s concerns – met with noticeable silence from both the JSC and the then-opposition majority parliament – sparked her ‘Article 285’ campaign.

Article 285 was the Constitutional stipulation that the JSC determine before the conclusion of the interim period – August 7, 2010 – whether or not the judges on the bench possessed the characteristics specified by article 149: “the educational qualifications, experience and recognized competence necessary to discharge the duties and responsibilities of a judge, [and] high moral character”.

At the eleventh hour prior to the conclusion of the interim period, the JSC reappointed the vast majority of sitting judges for life in a surrepticious ceremony conducted behind doors that would have remained closed had Velezinee not rushed the podium.

“The JSC decided – I believe with the support of parliament – that the same bench will remain for the next 40 years, retitled as an ‘independent judiciary’,” Velezinee said following the reappointments.

She further alleged that senior members of the parliamentary opposition were present in the JSC office over the weekend prior to the interim period deadline, personally assisting the JSC secretariat with photocopying the letters of appointment.

“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,” she told Minivan News in July 2010, noting that her concerns had led to her being labelled “the Article 285 madwoman” by not only the opposition.

Less than a year later, many of her allegations were independently corroborated by a report produced by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), which attended JSC sessions and criticised its independence.

The JSC, the report stated, “was unable to carry out its functions in a sufficiently transparent, timely, and impartial manner. To date, JSC decision-making has been perceived as being inappropriately influenced by a polarised political environment. Also troubling is that members of the judiciary have been subject to threats and intimidation as well as improper inducements by both governing and opposition party members.”

The JSC refused to table the ICJ’s report, and disputed having ever received it.

Towards the end of 2010 Velezinee upped her campaign to incorporate parliament, naming both opposition and independent MPs as being involved in what she described as “a silent coup” to deprive the country of an independent judiciary for the sake of providing continued judicial impunity to senior power brokers of the former administration.

The reason for that failure, she suggested, was a fear among leaders of the former administration “who are continuing with criminal activities they have allegedly been carrying out for a long, long time.”

“There is widespread public perception that certain members of parliament are behind all the serious organised crime going on in this country. This includes serious drug issues, gang violence, stabbings,” she alleged, in a previous interview with Minivan News.

“These are allegations only because they have never come up before a court of law in all this time.”

“It is a much discussed issue, but it has never come up in the courts. I can see now that perhaps it may be true – otherwise why prevent the formation of an independent judiciary? I don’t think they would have confidence that they would get away free,” Velezinee said, observing that former political figures such as attorney generals were now representing these MPs in court as their lawyers, “and, by and large, they win every case.”

“This is not such a far-fetched radical thought coming from me any more because of the things we have seen over the last year to do with politicians and judicial action. The courts are a playground for politicians and are not trusted by the general public. Parliament has failed, and there is no other institutional mechanism in this constitution for the JSC to be held to account.”

In January this year Velezinee was stabbed three times in broad daylight while walking down Male’s main tourist street, on the same day that the High Court judges were due to be appointed.

“My first fear was that I would easily I bleed to death,” she told Minivan News, after she was discharged from hospital. “But I took a deep breath and realised I was alive. As soon as I realised this, the only thing I wanted to do was go and get the blood stopped and get to the Commission because this was the day of the High Court appointments, and I know they wanted me out of the way. I didn’t realise how serious the wounds were, I didn’t see them until two days later when I went for a dressing change.”

Many international organisations, including Transparency International and the ICJ, expressed “grave concern that the attack may be politically motivated.”

“There are honourable men in this country who are owned by others, and they may be put in a position where they believe they have to take my life. I knew there was a chance that I was risking murder, and I wasn’t wrong,” Velezinee told Minivan News, following her recovery. “It was only because of God’s grace that I survived.”