Human rights watchdog defends restrictions imposed by Supreme Court

Human rights watchdog defends restrictions imposed by Supreme Court
March 28 17:10 2016

An 11-point guideline imposed by the Supreme Court on the human rights watchdog has not hampered its functioning, Shifaq Mufeed, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives, told the press yesterday.

The Supreme Court issued the legally binding guidelines in June 2015 after initiating criminal proceedings against HRCM members over a rights assessment report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council.

The guidelines, which barred the independent body from communicating with foreign organisations without government oversight, drew widespread condemnation from UN rights experts, the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, and civil society groups.

But Mufeed – a former ruling party MP appointed to the commission in August last year – said the guidelines do not obstruct the commission’s work, characterising it as a reminder for the HRCM to remain within legal bounds.

“We are working with full independence. The Maldivian judiciary has not rendered this commission powerless,” he said at a press conference yesterday.

The HRCM members met with Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed last week to discuss the guidelines, Mufeed continued, adding that the chief justice assured commissioners that it would not undermine the commission’s independence.

But the HRCM’s annual report for 2015 – made public earlier this month – stated that the Supreme Court’s criminal case against the commission was the “biggest challenge” it has faced.

The UN Special Rapporteurs on independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, and on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst had described the Supreme Court verdict “an act of reprisal.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the apex court judgment would weaken HRCM’s ability to engage with the UN human rights system and was “yet another example of the judiciary undermining human rights protection in the Maldives.”

The Supreme Court raised charges of treason against the human rights commissioners under controversial suomoto regulations that allow the apex court to prosecute and pass judgment. The move came days after the HRCM publicised its report for the Maldives’ Universal Periodic Review.

In the report, the HRCM had said the Supreme Court controlled and influenced the lower courts to the detriment of the Maldivian judiciary.

Declaring the UPR submission unlawful, Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed had said the report was biased, encouraged terrorists and undermined judicial independence in the Maldives.

The court also ordered the HRCM to protect unity, peace and order, and uphold Maldivian norms, faith, etiquette and the rule of law.

Shifaq meanwhile said that the commission has not faced any undue influence from the government or a state institution. Asked why the commission’s stance on the guidelines has changed, Mufeed said the Supreme Court judgement was final and could not be challenged.

The former MP for the mid-Fuvahmulah constituency was appointed to the five-member commission along with four others in late 2015 to replace outgoing commissioners.

President Abdulla Yameen’s administration has previously been accused of using the ruling coalition’s parliamentary majority to stack independent institutions with loyalists.

On Sunday, Yameen nominated two campaign staff to the broadcasting regulator.

The HRCM’s two-page report submitted to the UN stated: “The judicial system is controlled and influenced by the Supreme Court, weakening judicial powers vested in other superior courts and lower courts.”

During the Maldives UPR review in Geneva, countries across the world blasted the Maldives for the ‘politicisation of the judiciary’ and raised concern over the Supreme Court’s prosecution of the HRCM.

The judiciary came under fire over “politicisation,” inadequate qualification of judges, and lack of conformity to international fair trial standards.

The government has since accepted numerous recommendations put forth at the UN Human Rights Council on reforming the judiciary to ensure impartiality and independence.