Death chamber, isolation cells, and new jails

Death chamber, isolation cells, and new jails
November 17 22:18 2015

The government has earmarked funds in next year’s budget for new jails, a “death chamber” and solitary confinement units at the Maafushi jail, but slashed funding for the human rights watchdog to carry out torture prevention programmes and monitor compliance with international human rights treaties.

A source familiar with the matter said the finance ministry has cut nearly all of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives’ programme budget, “to the extent that the HRCM will not be able to carry out its mandate.”

International and domestic human rights groups have raised concerns over the “regression” of human rights in the Maldives with the plans to build a death chamber and solitary confinement units.

Some MVR5.5million has been asked for solitary confinement cells, and another MVR4million for the death chamber. Funds have also been allocated for the construction of new jails in Hulhumale, Kaashidhoo and Neykurendhoo with a combined capacity of 900 inmates.

The current prison population of the Maldives is about 1,200, whilst the capacity of existing jails is about 800.

The total cost of the new jails is estimated to be MVR428 million, of which MVR70.5 million will be spent next year. The majority of the expenditure on the new facilities is planned for 2017 and 2018.

Abbas Faiz from Amnesty International told The Maldives Independent that the government’s plans are aimed at undermining constitutional safeguards for human rights.

“Amnesty International opposes this plan and urges the government to honour the welcome record of no executions in the country for six decades. Amnesty International is against the death penalty anywhere in the world especially in a country like the Maldives where fair trial principles have been continually ignored,” he said.

Shortly after assuming power, the current administration ended a six-decade-old moratorium on capital punishment. Home Minister Umar Naseer ordered the prisons authority in January 2014 to make arrangements for implementing the death penalty through lethal injection.

However, a convict can only be executed after the Supreme Court passes a final judgment. The apex court is yet to hear the appeals of any convict sentenced to death.

Commissioner of Prisons Mohamed Husham told The Maldives Independent that funds for building the death chamber were included in anticipation of “a possible scenario for a Supreme Court death sentence.”

He declined to comment on the amounts allocated for the chamber and solitary confinement units at present.

The home ministry’s spokesperson was not responding despite repeated inquiries at the time of publication.

Ahmed Tholal, former vice president of the human rights watchdog, called the plans for the death chamber “alarming” and “a disturbing development.”

The allocation of funds to enable executions makes it “all too real.”

“Prominent Islamic scholars such as Thariq Ramadan have spoken on the need to do away with the death penalty in a place where there’s room for error especially in the absence of laws and a competent judiciary,” he said.

Jeehan Mahmoud, also a former member of the HRCM, said holding inmates in solitary confinement is “very dangerous.”

“I consider solitary confinement to be an inhumane and degrading punishment. We worked to stop the practice,” she said. “With the establishment of the [National Preventive Mechanism], there was a policy shift, to temporary segregation for prisoners who need to be disciplined. Solitary confinement does not serve the purpose of rehabilitation. This is a major regression.”

On the plans for new jails, she said plans to increase prison capacity have been in the pipeline for a long time.

“My concern here is over the government’s priorities. That half a million would be better spent on healthcare and education, or more importantly, improving access for schools for children with disabilities, on hearing aids and reading braille,” she said.

Shahindha Ismail, executive director of the Maldivian Democracy Network, said the government needs to be more “enthusiastic” about preventing crimes than punishing criminals. 

Rehabilitating offenders should be a higher priority, she suggested.

“The current conditions in jails, does not address the psychological reasons behind offenders committing crimes. So when a person goes to jail for the first time, they come out even worse and commit bigger crimes,” she said.

She went on to question the government’s apparent impatience for executing criminals despite gaps and flaws in the country’s legal framework.

“While there is no way the death penalty can be implemented and when state finances are so tight, when there is so much more that the state needs, what is the use in allocating so much money for a death chamber?”

Ibrahim Riza, anti-corruption NGO Transparency Maldives’ (TM) legal assistant, too, questioned why money was being earmarked to implement the death penalty “when public trust on the judiciary is so low, like our surveys have shown.”

TM’s second democracy survey showed that 51 percent of the public do not have confidence in the judiciary.

“It is also questionable why we need two solitary confinement units. When such big amounts of money are being allocated, there should be financial transparency. A break down of how the money will be spent should be available to the public,” he said.

The total budget for MCS’ capital expenditure for 2016 is MVR166.6million. Funds have also been allocated to upgrade prisons, and much-needed crisis care units, rooms for conjugal visits, and strengthening security systems at Maafushi jail.

MP Eva Abdulla of the main opposition the Maldivian Democratic Party told The Maldives Independent that the proposed budget for 2016 does not reflect the needs of the public.

“What the country needs is a people’s budget, protecting the welfare of the most vulnerable people in the society and strengthening the justice system. However, what they got is a budget based on fighting demons in the president’s head. Human dignity is not protected,” she said.

Additional writing and reporting by Zaheena Rasheed and Ahmed Naish. 

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