A Maldivian chronicler once recounted an anecdote of the late Prince Hassan Farid Didi who remarked back in the 1930’s that granting democracy to Maldivians is like giving a handkerchief to a monkey. “The monkey doesn’t know what a handkerchief is used for and soon it will wipe its bottom with it,” the Prince reportedly said.
A lot of Maldivians take offense at being compared to primates, but the past few weeks of political volatility has definitely called into question the country’s ability to shoulder the responsibilities of being a democracy.
The current crisis was sparked after the armed forces were commanded to forcibly detain Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed of the Criminal Court, after he ordered the release of two opposition leaders who were being prosecuted for “hate speech”.
The DQP leaders, Dr Jameel and “Sandhaanu” Ahmed Didi, had publicly accused the government of coming under the influence of Jews and Christian missionaries “to destroy Islam”. Religious hyperbole is frequently used for political slander in the Maldives – an unfortunate outcome of the country’s failure to adopt a secular constitution in 2008.
The military detention of the judge has led to a series of increasingly violent, opposition-led street protests in Male’ for the past 10 days. Protesters have allegedly attacked journalists, uprooted trees, damaged public property and vandalised a Minister’s house.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, High Court, the Opposition parties, the SAARC Secretary General and the Vice President have all spoken out against the detention calling it unconstitutional. Even the Prosecutor General has declared the detention unlawful.
This wouldn’t be the first time President Nasheed has exercised his uncanny willingness to shake things up.
In August 2010, he commanded the armed forces to lock down the Supreme Court after the Interim Supreme Court bench boldly decided to declare itself permanent. Following the siege, the major political parties managed to do some quick backroom negotiations to appoint a new panel of judges.
While the President’s latest salvo has successfully brought into the mainstream public conscious, for the first time, the long ignored issue of the runaway judiciary, it does raise concerns about the Executive setting unwelcome precedents for the future.
Aishath Velezinee, the former Judicial Services Commission whistle-blower, has publicly alleged that there is a collusion between senior opposition parliamentarians and the judiciary, which exercises undue influence over the JSC.
The JSC, which is supposed to be the independent watchdog of the judiciary, is itself dominated by judges and opposition allied politicians – and its record thus far is less befitting a watchdog, and more indicative of a lap dog.
Velezinee alleges that this is tantamount to a ‘silent coup’, where the judiciary is hijacked by a nexus of corrupt judges and opposition leaders, and the courts are used as an instrument to protect members of the old establishment that was overthrown during the democratic uprising.
The Criminal Court
The charges against Judge Abdulla Mohamed are extremely serious – ranging from corruption, to obstruction of police duties, to questionable judgments and poor professional conduct.
In February 2010, the judge ordered the release of a murder suspect – who would then stab another man to death within the next month.
The judge has in the past demanded that an underage sexual abuse victim re-enact her abuse in the public courtroom. These allegations were first reported in 2005 by then Attorney General Dr Hassan Saeed, whose political party is now among those leading the charge to release him.
The police have in the past accused the judge of delaying search warrants by several days, allowing major drug traffickers to get away. The Home Minister accuses him ordering the release of suspected criminals “without a single hearing”. He also stands accused of arbitrarily dismissing court officials.
It does not help allegations that the courts are in bed with tainted politicians when the same Criminal Court Judge also bars the media from covering corruption proceedings against opposition-allied Deputy Speaker Nazim.
A February 2011 report released by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) also highlighted the failure of the politicised courts to be impartial in providing justice.
The Rule of Law
While there are obviously dark clouds looming over Judge Abdulla Mohamed’s record, and the state of the judiciary is less than acceptable, does this automatically excuse the executive’s decision to forcibly detain the judge on a whim?
The unilateral actions of the very first democratically elected executive sets a rather poor precedent.
Will it be the case in the future that any elected President can arbitrarily command the armed forces to detain errant officials or citizens without the any court approval, or warrant or legal backing?
Will all future presidents be similarly entrusted to be the ultimate judge of when the Rule of Law can be subverted – if they feel it is in the larger interests of society? Will their judgements always be enforced through the brute force of the military?
The ruling party and the President’s apologists offer the explanation that given the nature of the allegations against Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed, and the cartel-like behaviour of the judiciary, drastic action needed to be taken to ensure justice.
Yes, drastic action was indeed required – but did it necessarily need to be initiated from the President’s Office? Does not ultimate power rest with the voting public anymore?
It has proven surprisingly difficult to get the public involved in a debate over the many, many allegations against the judiciary – that less glamorous wing of state power where the primary actors work behind closed doors, hidden from the media limelight.
When former MP and Chairman of the Special Majlis Drafting Committee Ibrahim “Ibra” Ismail expressed alarm in September 2011 over the growing excesses of the judiciary, the Supreme Court fantastically reprimanded him in a press release, asserting that criticising the Courts went “against the principles of civilisation” and that the constitution forbade such criticism.
In a democracy, the power rests with the people. However, Maldivians so far have shown little inclination to hold their state office bearers accountable.
In the neighbouring country of India, tens of thousands of outraged members of the public poured out onto the streets in recent months to protest against corruption in high offices.
The impact of overwhelming public sentiment and the willingness of the Indian public to hold their elected officials accountable worked. Several cabinet ministers and powerful provincial leaders previously thought to be untouchable by law suddenly found themselves behind bars.
Despite their every natural instinct, both opposition and ruling party leaders in India were forced to bend to public will and draft legislation that would create a new constitutional authority – an ombudsman that would be empowered to investigate corruption at the highest levels, including the Prime Minister’s office.
In contrast, the Maldivian public seems to be lethargic, and content with mindlessly echoing whatever slogan is aired by whichever party they happened to plead allegiance to.
Thus, we had ten thousand protesters mindlessly follow their sloganeering political leaders last month to complain about monuments and a host of other trivial non-issues, but there wasn’t a murmur to be heard about the serious charges of corruption and undermining of the judiciary by the same politicians who were on stage blathering about some imagined grief caused by invading Jews.
Pray where were the hordes of MDP loyalists that today defend the President and speak in angry tones against the Criminal Court judge, when the judiciary made a mockery of the constitution throughout the whole fiasco involving the appointment of judges?
Does anyone know the views of the opposition protesters on the state of affairs of the judiciary?
Are they not concerned about the under-qualified, under-educated, and sometimes convicted criminals of poor moral calibre that now occupy the benches of their courts?
If they are worried about the abuse of executive power, why are they not concerned about the abuse of judicial and legislative power?
Perhaps the Maldivian public is simply uneducated on the gravity of these issues due to the lack of any avenue for factual, impartial information – and having access only to a bunch of partisan propaganda outlets masquerading as ‘the media’, with the choice to pick one that most panders to their views.
The slant of the State media coverage of the recent protests is eerily similar to the language employed by Gayoom-era news propaganda. Similarly, the bias and sensationalism spewed by opposition-allied TV networks would make Fox News and The Daily Mail blush.
A second revolution
An argument can be made that the task of democratic transition still lies incomplete, and that democratic reforms only changed things in the executive, leaving the judiciary and parliament to remain bastions of the old guard.
The President and the ruling party have the right to educate the public and complete the task of democratic reform in all areas of governance.
However, if they feel that more drastic, revolutionary actions are necessary, then perhaps they ought to relinquish the position of the executive, return to the streets as ordinary citizens, and organize a grassroots campaign to cleanse the country’s courts and Parliament.
It simply does not bode well for the country’s democracy when the powers bestowed to one arm of the State is unilaterally employed to twist the other arm.
The country has already had one failed attempt at democracy before. If the actions of the democratic leaders causes the general public loses faith in democratic institutions and the rule of law, then there’s no reason to believe it won’t fail again.
The Maldivian public needs to realize that the ultimate Constitutional power is not vested in the President’s residence of Muleeage, but in the hands of voting citizens, and that if they are serious about completing the task of Judicial reform, then it is up to the citizens themselves to rise up and sort out the Judges.
Echoing the sentiments of the Prince Hassan Farid Didi, Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom once said in an interview that Dhivehin are not ‘ready’ for democracy.
Recent events suggest that both the Pharaoh and the Prince appear to be correct.
Four years after we voted in our first democratic government, the Maldivian public continues to be as clueless as the monkey with the handkerchief – and it is under our watch that politicians and judges wipe their bottoms with the constitution.
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