An opinion piece by Nikhil Narayan, ICJ’s Senior Legal Adviser for South Asia.
The government of President Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives continues to abuse an overbroad anti-terror law as a blunt-force tool to arbitrarily and indiscriminately silence perceived political threats to his regime.
During a recent visit to the Maldives last month, I was alarmed by the numerous and increasing number of terrorism trials against public officials.
While international attention has relaxed in recent months following former president Mohamed Nasheed’s medical leave to the UK pending appeal of his own terrorism conviction from last year, President Yameen’s government continues to use a deeply politicized criminal justice system to persecute anyone out of favour with the President, be they opposition party members, judges, even former cabinet members and erstwhile allies.
In October 2015, for instance, then-Vice President Ahmed Adeeb was arrested in connection with a suspected bomb blast on a boat carrying the President, even though a US FBI investigation was unable to conclude that the explosion was caused by a bomb.
The then-VP was subsequently summarily impeached and soon thereafter charged with several counts of corruption and terrorism.
During a 15 February 2016 hearing, a terrorism charge based on an alleged firearm seen in the former VP’s residence in April 2015 was formally presented and disclosed to the defense for the first time, though the defense continues to be denied access to the evidence or witness list in this case on national security grounds.
A second charge of terrorism against the former VP, this one in connection with the alleged bomb blast on the President’s boat, was filed on 17 March.
The defense was not formally notified of this new charge, only learning of it through media reports.
Here too, the defense is yet to be given access to any government witnesses or evidence relating to the charge.
Such denial of access to evidence and witnesses contravenes the right to prepare an adequate defence and the right to test evidence, fundamental components of the right to fair trial.
On 16 February, leader of the opposition Adhaalath party, Sheikh Imran Abdullah, was convicted and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment on terrorism charges in connection with a public speech given during an opposition protest rally.
The disproportionately severe punishment in Sheikh Imran’s case – a 12-year ‘terrorism’ sentence for a political speech – was the outcome of an arbitrary and unfair trial process fraught with apparent fair trial violations, including allegedly doctored evidence.
Two more recent victims of inappropriate ‘terrorism’ charges are Magistrate Judge Ahmed Nihan and former Prosecutor General Muhthaz Muhsin, both of whom were arrested on 7 February in connection with an alleged ‘forged’ arrest warrant against the President for his alleged role in a major corruption scandal involving the embezzlement of several million dollars of state funds.
On 8 March, more than one month after the arrests, both were charged under sections 4(a) and 5(a) of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2015, for conspiring to ‘kidnap’ the President.
Meanwhile, on 15 March, former Defense Minister Col. (retd.) Mohamed Nazim’s conviction on ‘weapons smuggling’ charges (based on the discovery of one pistol and three bullets allegedly found in his home in January 2015) was upheld by the appellate High Court, one year since his conviction and three months since the final hearing in his appeal.
The ICJ has previously documented in detail, in its August 2015 fact-finding report, the substantial fair trial violations in Col. Nazim’s investigation and trial, including indications that the weapons in question were planted, that implicate an arbitrary, unfair and politically motivated proceeding.
There is a clear pattern here of the Maldives government seeking to neutralize certain political actors through arbitrary, heavy-handed and politically motivated abuse of the anti-terrorism law that amounts to a flagrant violation of the basic international principles of fair trial, judicial independence and separation of powers.
It is also a clear breach of the Maldives’ international legal obligation to respect the right to fair trial under article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the Maldives acceded in 2006.
The misuse of anti-terror laws in the Maldives seems part of an effort to halt and reverse the progress made during the country’s brief democratic transition after 2008.
As the country faces growing political unrest and instability, President Yameen’s government must restore the rule of law, strengthen the judiciary and other democratic institutions, and set the country back on the path towards a more representative and accountable government.
An important first step in doing so is immediately ceasing from using the anti-terror law as a political weapon to chill the actions of public officials and silence real or perceived political opponents, and ensuring that those currently facing criminal charges are provided a fair trial in accordance with the Maldives’ international human rights obligations and its national laws.