UN sends delegation as UK urges judicial reform

A political delegation from the United Nations’ (UN) Department of Political Affairs (DPA) will arrive in Male’ next week to discuss the Maldives’ current efforts at judicial reform as part of its ongoing democratic transition.

The delegation, headed by UN Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, will meet with government officials, opposition leaders and civil society representatives. Revolving around the current situation the Maldives, discussions aim to identify opportunities to support democratic growth.

In November last year UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay visited the Maldives and said the country had made “significant advances” during the first few years of its transition, but a gap still existed between the rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

The Commonwealth has also pledged to assist the island nation in its efforts towards judicial reform, while British Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Alistair Burt, is holding discussions with President Mohamed Nasheed to resolve the current stalemate.

“Although the [Maldives’] judiciary is constitutionally independent, the sitting judges are under qualified, often corrupt and hostile to the democratically elected regime,” said MP John Glen of Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Conservative party.

Glen further called on the House Leader to “urgently make time for a debate on judicial reform in the Maldives,” reads a press statement.

Leader of the House of Commons and Conservative Party MP George Young pointed out that the British High Commission in Colombo is involved. “We want to help Maldives to make progress towards democratic reform in the direction that my friend John Glen outlines,” he said.

The Maldives formally requested international legal assistance from the UN Human Rights Commission on January 22. Last year, ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) also appealed for international intervention in what it considered an “increasingly blatant collusion between politicians loyal to the former autocratic President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and senior members of the judiciary.”

The Maldives government initiated a judicial standoff on January 16 when it ordered the military to arrest Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed after he filed a High Court injunction against his police summons.

Allegations against Judge Mohamed date back to 2005 and include misogyny, sexual deviancy, throwing out an assault case despite the confession of the accused, political bias, obstruction of police duty, disregarding decisions of high courts, deliberately holding up cases involving opposition figures, barring media from corruption trials, ordering the release of suspects detained for serious crimes without a single hearing, maintaining “suspicious ties” with family members of convicts sentenced for dangerous crimes, and releasing a murder suspect “in the name of holding ministers accountable” who went on to kill another victim.

In one instance Abdulla Mohamed was accused of requesting that two underage victims of sexual assault act out their attack in court, in front of the perpetrator.

The judge had previously been under investigation by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), but had successfully sought an injunction from the Civil Court against his further investigation by the judicial watchdog.

The JSC itself has itself been accused of perjury, embezzlement and corruption – by one of its own members.

The ongoing detention of the judge has polarised public opinion in the Maldives, resulting in three weeks of opposition-led protests which draw crowds of 200 to 400 nightly on Male’ calling for the judge’s freedom and the downfall of the government. Several police officers and protesters have been injured during the protests and a number of journalists have been the victims of targeted attacks.

In addition, a few government buildings and private property belonging to government officials have been damaged.

Protest leaders have pledged to continue the demonstrations until an “even stronger” protest on February 24. Meanwhile, MDP has gathered regularly at its party camp where activists have occasionally urged party members to “go out and confront the opposition”. No such order has officially been given, however MDP has asked party supporters to come to Male’ from surrounding islands for a demonstration on February 17.


Protests to continue as police threaten zero-tolerance

Maldives Police Services has said it will adopt a zero-tolerance policy during protests if opposition demonstrators continue their current, increasingly violent trajectory which has sent four police officers to the hospital in the past two days.

Citing protesters’ recent use of fireballs, petrol bombs and bricks, police have said they will exercise full legal authority to prevent the ongoing anti-government protests from developing into acts of terrorism.

Opposition rotesters have demonstrated every night since January 16, when Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed was arrested by military forces and detained at a training facility in Kaafu Atoll Girifushi. Opposition party members have drawn crowds of approximately 200 to 300 nightly to the area in front of the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) near the Male’ fish market, while ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) members have taken to gathering at their party camp on the other side of the island.

Police and military forces have patrolled key areas of the island on a regular basis, nightly arresting individuals for violent activities.

Speaking of last night’s demonstration, Sub-Inspector Hussain Haneef said 37 individuals were arrested “for violence and acting against police orders.” He added that nine individuals have been released.

Mohamed Haisham, a protest coordinator and member of opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), said most individuals arrested last night were women and blamed any violent agitation on MDP, “who is giving money, drugs, alcohol and knives to gangs who are causing the problems.”

Haisham said protesters are undeterred by the police warnings. “Tonight’s protest will be very strong,” he informed Minivan News, adding that protests will continue until “the biggest one”, a rally scheduled for February 24.

Last night’s unrest also led to the breaking of windows at MDP headquarters and the Finance Ministry, as well as the windshield of a city bus.

Police have also launched an investigation into a Henveiru ward fire which broke out last night in the home of musician Ibra Rasheed, destroying a majority of the musical equipment belonging to himself and his son.

Rasheed, who claims not to belong to any party, has been producing music against the former government since the 1980s; between 1988 and 2003 he was arrested, jailed and banished to an island. “They arrested me for drugs, but everybody knows I don’t use drugs. They really arrested me for my music,” he said.

Since the current government came to power in 2008 Rasheed has been able to produce and sell six albums, however he claims being hassled by supporters of the former government for his work.

In 2010 Rasheed released the song “Black 30 Years” criticising the lifestyle of Abdulla Hameed, former Atolls Minister and half-brother to former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. “After that I was walking by the postal building and saw Shaheem Hameed [his son]. He refused to shake my hand and said he would sue me for what I did to his father,” Rasheed said. Soon after he was beaten up in the street, he said.

In the past several weeks, the threats have become more frequent.

“There are guys who come around on their motorbikes and tell me they are going to beat me and kill me. With these protests now they are coming more often, I am scared anything might happen to me so I stay at home. I think they were the ones who started the fire [in my son’s room].”

Rasheed said the door to his son’s room was locked and vacant when smoke began pouring out. House residents forced open the door and put out the flame, however all of the equipment inside was destroyed. “We kept my son’s computer for mixing and the guitars and most recording stuff in there,” he explained. “Someone told me the Islamic Bank can provide financial support, but I haven’t talked to the bank yet.” Rasheed said the damages amounted to Rf80,000 (US$5,200).


Police officer burned by flaming ball as protests persist

A police officer was hospitalised last night after being struck by a ball set on fire and hurled during night’s protest outside Male’s fish market, where opposition party members have been rallying crowds since January 16 calling for the release of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed from military detention.

According to police parts of the officer’s uniform were burnt along with some of the weapons he was carrying at the time. The officer also sustained injuries to his neck, chin and ears.

The officer was immediately taken to ADK hospital, police said. Two other police officers injured during the confrontation have been admitted to hospital as well.

Police said they are currently investigating the attack. No other arrests or injuries were reported.

During the opposition-led protest, which began at approximately 9:00pm last evening, a group of 200 active participants charged police blockades in an effort to enter the off-limits Republic Square. Between 10:30pm and 11:30pm protesters and police advanced and retreated along the jetty near the fish market several times. Various glass objects as well as empty bottles, stones, eggs, young coconuts and flares were thrown by protesters into the police zone, occasionally falling short of their marks and landing among the protesting crowd.

Police retaliated by pushing back the crowd, eventually deploying tear gas and pepper spray.

A woman who was sprayed following a near-hysterical confrontation with police was treated and calmed by a group of protesters on the side lines before rejoining the crowd.

Meanwhile, approximately 200 bystanders observed the commotion from the upper levels of nearby boats and the fish market opposite, some laughing, some shouting, and some simply watching.

Yesterday afternoon, activists and Parliament members from the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) marched up the island’s central road of  Majeedhee Magu, past the tsunami memorial and down Ameenee Magu to the party camp, calling for all judges to be arrested and for Male’ city “to be calm.” At the party camp activists announced their intention to advance on the protesters that evening at 8:30pm, before dispersing for prayer and dinner.

The previous evening, protest leaders went to the house of Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan to request an immediate meeting. The Vice President reportedly welcomed them inside, and at 1:00am opposition leaders emerged pledging allegiance to the Vice President and urging him to assume control of the executive.

The government maintained that it had not lost confidence in the Vice President, discounting his decision to meet with the protesters as a diplomatic courtesy and reaffirmed its faith in his allegiance. During the protest the following evening, however, protesters maintained that the Vice President was on their side.

“He wants the judge free, he has said he shares our interests,” an opposition protester told Minivan News.

Party members from both sides of the political aisle gathered at their respective locales last night. MDP activists reportedly urged an advance on the fish market, however MDP Chairman and MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik instructed those assembled to wait for official party orders, according to sources.

Although the crowd vocally supported an advance, no official decision was made and members of the crowd did not initiate a mass movement.

A protest coordinator and opposition party member meanwhile told Minivan News that a number of protesters were harmed during last night’s protest at the fish market in a clash with the MDP.

“It is the [MDP] activists who are doing and throwing these things,” he claimed. “They are the ones causing all the damage.”

Other protesters acknowledged that gang members are known to be participating in the demonstrations, sometimes after taking drugs or alcohol, however they would not provide further details.

Protests are expected to continue through February 24, the opposition protest coordinator said.


IMF pursues government and parliament cost cutting with Maldives mission

The Maldives government has claimed it remains committed to working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in addressing its concerns on cutting state expenditure, following protests claimed to have been instigated as part of a “youth movement” concerned over rising living costs.

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair told Minivan News that the IMF had travelled to the Maldives this week to meet with various organisations and individuals, including President Mohamed Nasheed and the Majlis’ Public Finance Committee as part of a mission to oversee a national economic recovery plan.

“They were visiting as part of a wider mission in the country including meeting with the president where they retread concerns over plans to reduce state expenditure,” he said.

The government’s fiscal policy has become a major national issue after a week of consecutive protests held earlier this month across Male’, which organisers claimed had been instigated initially by young Maldivians and supported by opposition politicians.

Protesters are said to have been particularly concerned with the government’s controversial decision to last month devalue its currency, allowing the rufiya to be traded within 20 percent of the pegged rate of Rf12.85 to the dollar – a move welcomed by the IMF.

Amidst the backdrop of perceived public and political dissatisfaction with government finances, Zuhair said that the IMF’s meeting with the Public Finance Committee had aimed to encourage parliament to consider government initiatives to try and increase direct state revenues to balance budget deficits.

“There are several bills on taxation currently under consideration in parliament and an amendment to the Tourism Goods and Services Tax (GST) – implemented in January this year on all services and goods purchased by tourists – from 3.5 percent to five percent,” he said. “I think it is interesting to note that there are many resort owners in parliament.”

While supporting initiatives to reduce costs that have led to ongoing public protests in the country, the Treasurer of The Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MNCCI), Ahmed Adheeb Abdul Gafoor, said that the the planned addition of a minimum wage and a Goods and Services Tax (GST) on all businesses operating in the country needed to be gradually implemented.

Speaking earlier this month, Abdul Gafoor claimed that gradual introduction would be vital to ensure the nation’s fledgling economy can cope with any potential changes.

Alongside a parallel aim to try and create new job opportunities for young people, Zuhair claimed that the government had in general been closely following the recommendations of the IMF in trying to cut the state’s wage bill for political appointees and civil servants.

To this end, he said that the government had moved to try and reduce the wages of political appointees by 20 percent and civil servants by 15 percent.

“In enacting these cuts we were hoping that the Majlis would follow and also cut wages. The institution failed to do this as well as the judiciary,” he claimed. “The government as a result had to move to reinstate the wages it had cut.”

Zuhair claimed that the government had been working in line with IMF recommendations and had even tried to perform additional cuts unrequested by the finance body in areas such as reducing appointee wage spending.

Despite pushing ahead with its attempted financial reforms, the government has said that it has opted to meet with some of the youth figures said to be at the heart of organising protests seen in Male’ this month.

However, the session held yesterday was reportedly cut short when Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz walked out at the meeting claiming that the youth delegation included the leader of the opposition-allied People’s Alliance (PA) sports wing, and two others he claimed were “new political figures” created by senior party officials.

“I waited in the meeting until we could address the real issues, but they kept on criticising the government policy and some of the government projects,’’ Inaz told Minivan News. ‘’I did not want to have a heated political debate – we went there to negotiate with the youth regarding the dollar issues, not for a political debate.’’

Mohamed Ahsan, a spokesperson from the youth delegation, said the group was unable to clarify information it wanted from the Finance Ministry as the minister had left the meeting, though senior representatives of the Maldives Monetary Authority remained.

“The MMA officials were very cooperative,” he said. “We found out that the government have not been implementing the MMA’s suggestions to its full extent,’’ said Ahsan. “The MMA clarified almost all the information we required.”

He also said the finance minister “took it politically” because a PA member was present at the meeting.

‘’We have decided to recommence the protests, but due to exams we have temporarily delayed it,’’ he said. ‘’Once the examinations are over we will restart the protests.’’

A first round of negotiations held last week were described as “very upsetting” by the opposition’s Gayoom faction after the delegation accused President’s Office representative Shauna Aminath of stating that the “political solution” to the country’s economic woes was the arrest for the former President.

“We met with four people who claimed to represent youth,” Shauna said. “They presented a piece of paper they said was a youth proposal, but there was almost no discussion of what was on it.
“They talked a little about youth unemployment, and the rising price of milk, cooking oil and petrol. They said that young people did not have enough money to pay for coffees or petrol for their motorbikes.”

The group of four had “repeated the same messages being aired by [opposition] political parties: that the government had sold the airport to GMR, Dhiraggu to [Cable and Wireless], and that six people had control of the entire economy.

“Then they said they understood that the government’s [managed float of the rufiya] was necessary, but were concerned the government had not spoken about it beforehand.”

Back in March, MP for the People’s Alliance (PA) party and a member of the Majlis’ Public Finance Committee said that he believed current government policy was ultimately stifling economic development, claiming administrative costs within the civil service remained a notable problem.

“We have small percentage [of funds] to invest in the economy. We cannot move finances to a higher level though as the government doesn’t have the right policies to do this,” he claimed. “For instance, we need to reduce the number of [inhabited] islands by linking them and cutting the overall number of cost centres required for decentralisation.

The comments were made as the IMF claimed that the Maldives economy remained “unsustainable” even after cuts made to the annual 2011 budget, as it concluded its Article IV consultation earlier during the year.