Comment: What do you call a lawless State?

On Tuesday the Maldives appointed a Supreme Court bench in one of the few displays of cross-party cooperation seen in parliament since the ratification of the 2008 Constitution.

But Raadhafathi, a Maldivian national currently working on a project to strengthen the justice sector of the Maldives, and with experience training judges and inspecting courts all over the country, claims the road to an experienced, impartial and capable judiciary will be long and arduous.

The Maldives is in a state of transition. A new Constitution, a new Supreme Court, a new President, multi-party systems and many other factors creating a crucial period for the judiciary as well as for the country as a whole.

I am writing this to highlight the justice sector of Maldives.

Since independence the Maldives has acceded or ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Convention Against Torture (CAT), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The Maldives was officially awarded a seat in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in May 2010.

The Constitution adopted in 2008 provides for independence of the judiciary, creates new individual liberties, establishes judicial review and gives certain responsibilities relating to the judiciary to the Judicial Services Commission (JSC). These developments present challenges as well as opportunities for the judiciary.

The dynamic reforms of the past two years require that the judiciary transforms itself to ensure that it has the capacity to address the issues brought before it in the coming years. The Maldives is geographically unique in that it is comprised of 20 Atolls containing nearly 1200 islands, out of which 200 are inhabited. This presents numerous governmental challenges which judiciaries in other countries do not face.

During the past five months I have:

  • Been involved in the training of 18 Judges from the Malé courts and 23 Magistrates from the Island Courts on Human Rights and the Constitution;
  • Interviewed NGO’s, Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, Migrant Workers, Bangladesh Embassy, Indian High Commission, Department of Immigration and private lawyers.
  • Visited all the police stations, prisons and detention facilities in the Malé surrounds;
  • Interviewed prisoners and prison staff
  • Visited and interviewed drug rehabilitation facilities
  • Visited all the courts in Malé and interviewed judges and court staff including the [interim] Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
  • Visited Southern and Northern Atolls Courts and interviewed Magistrates, Atoll police commanders, Investigation officers, court staff, prosecutors and court users in the community.

It is evident there is an urgent need to increase the capacity of judges and the court staff to handle the number and complexity of the cases brought to the judiciary, in particular protecting rights enshrined in the Constitution. In addition, Human Rights is a new concept in Maldives and very few people poses the necessary skills and knowledge.

Major features and problems of the legal and judicial system operating in the Maldives

There are total of 208 judges/magistrates in Maldives. Although rights are defined and independent institutions exist to ensure rights are protected, the weakness of the current legal framework lies with the lack of trained professionals in the justice sector, in particular judges, magistrates, prosecutors and police.

98 percent of the legal profession in Maldives (including prosecutors, lawyers, judges, magistrates) are less than qualified to be in the legal profession. Most judges and magistrates have only completed secondary education, and they are not required to be lawyers.

Very few have completed undergraduate or post graduate degree from a western country. Most degrees are from Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and they are usually from unrelated fields. Some have received a Diploma in Sha’riah Law from Institutions established in Malé.

There is no common denominator in judicial training and experience. Some have learned in Arabic, some in Dhivehi, a few in English (the majority of the Judges I have met do not speak English to a serious degree).

The average age of judges at present is 28-32 years.

This situation gives rise to many problems such as reconciling Shari’ah law and the codified common law, as well as the attitudes of judges trained in the Shari’ah law and lawyers trained in common law traditions of the Commonwealth. In addition, the lack of laws governing legal procedure exacerbates the situation further, ensuring there is no consistency in their judgments or conduct of cases.

The judicial system is in considerable chaos. There are no Rules of Court, instead certain rules and regulations are found in more informal publications called ‘Court Circulars’.

In criminal cases, there is no formal onus of proof, and Judges can and do conduct cases any way they want. Every Judge does his or her cases differently and unpredictably.

State attorneys can appear in private legal cases and can be and are members of the Majlis. These arrangements are a direct breach of the separation of powers doctrine. This again demonstrates a failure to appreciate how a democracy and the separation of powers are intended to operate.

The right to a fair trial is a cornerstone of democratic societies. How a person is treated when accused of a crime provides a concrete demonstration of how far a state respects human rights. Unfortunately in the Maldives:

  • Courts assume guilt based on the prosecution case before the ‘trial’
  • A Russian national who only speaks Russian is provided an English Interpreter
  • Prosecution did not provide the documents filed to the accused. Prosecution stated “providing a copy to the accused is not included in the budget.”
  • If a woman submits an application for a divorce, the courts treat the woman with disrespect and 99 percent of the time, they are not granted a divorce regardless of evidence produced – even in domestic violence cases.
  • Prosecution takes too long to file a case, particularly in the islands.
  • Legal profession lacks basic advocacy skills
  • Majority of the legal profession are not competent. They are independent by law but not in practice. As for impartiality – the island courts in particular – this is not exercised due to the small community they live in. Island prosecutors often discuss matters with the magistrates. The prosecution is also allowed to go and spend time with the court staff, while the accused is waits outside in the waiting room.
  • Most judges do not know that public can attend hearings. Hence often those who attend are sent away. The other issue is lack of space in the tiny court rooms.
  • Accused not given an opportunity to cross-examine

Despite all this, the JSC, the independent body responsible for the judiciary, approved all judges to be appointed without term (tenure to retire at 70). If the JSC were to continue the way they have been conducting themselves, there is no hope to strengthen the judiciary of Maldives nor to protect rights enshrined in the Constitution.

The transitional period (Chapter 14 of the Constitution) ended on 7 August 2010.  While the Supreme Court has been appointed, unfortunately the judiciary remains in a state of disarray.

No one (including the executive, parliament and judiciary) knows the meaning of the term ‘separation of powers’, ‘what the law is’ nor even what ‘Human Rights’ means.

No one obeys or respects the legal system, and the Maldives legal system is oppressive and unjust. The entire situation contravenes basic tenets of the rule of law and requires urgent change. The concepts of enforceable natural justice, procedural regularity and due process are not known in Maldivian courts.

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