Unnoticed by much of the world, the sundrenched holiday paradise of the Maldives is slipping rapidly into autocratic rule. Since February, the government has banned opposition parties from elections and locked up political leaders and even judges.
On June 13, in a blatant move to strengthen President Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s grip on power, the Maldives Criminal Court sentenced former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, former Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, and Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed each to 19 months in prison after being found guilty of “obstructing justice” for refusing to hand over their mobile phones to police.
The ruling represents the latest in a series politically motivated efforts to silence the opposition, further undermine the judiciary, and ensure Yameen’s victory in the September polls.
On February 1, the two justices had voted to overturn the convictions of nine members of the opposition, clearing the way for them to contest the September elections. Yameen denounced that ruling as “illegal,” and declared a 15-day state of emergency “to hold these justices accountable.” During the emergency, authorities arrested the three men and a Supreme Court administrator on charges of trying to “overthrow the government.”
Multiple procedural irregularities marred the trials. On May 22, the court rejected several pretrial motions from Gayoom’s defense lawyer, Maumoon Hameed, related to Gayoom’s health. On May 20 Hameed recused himself; in a tweet he said that “grave procedural defects + hearings in absentia prejudice [Gayoom’s] right to a #fairtrial.” Lawyers for justices Hameed and Sayeed also resigned. Criminal Court Judge Hassan Najeeb refused multiple appeals from the defendants for time to appoint new lawyers. The court called no defense witnesses.
India, the US, and the UK all criticized the trial proceedings. The US State Department said the ruling cast “serious doubt on the commitment of the Government of Maldives to the rule of law and calls into question its willingness to permit a free and fair presidential election in September.” India expressed “deep dismay” with the trial and sentencing.
The Maldives government has brushed off the criticism, stating that the three men were sentenced “as per national laws, regulations and procedures governing the criminal justice system in the Maldives,” and that “the Maldivian government was committed to upholding the rule of law.”
Not really. Yameen’s government is running fast in the opposite direction, toward one party rule and widening repression.