Criminal court Judge Abdul Bari Yousuf has barred CNM senior journalist Misbah Abbas from covering Sheikh Imran Abdulla’s terrorism trial.
Misbah, senior desk editor at the popular online paper, had registered at the criminal court to observe yesterday’s 1:00pm hearing, but was told by a court official that “the judge has decided not to let the CNM journalists inside.”
The move comes days after CNM reported that Judge Bari had threatened journalists inside the courtroom claiming their coverage of the Adhaalath Party leader’s trial was unfair, Misbah said.
“The judge told reporters that we should be fair in reporting on trials and threatened to take action against journalists. We wrote about that, and the next day I wrote a report questioning whether Sheikh Imran would get a fair trial, which I think is why I wasn’t let into the court room yesterday,” he said.
Misbah’s report on Saturday highlighted the questionable nature of terrorism charges against Imran as well as his eight-month long detention.
Imran is accused of inciting violence in his speech at the historic May Day anti-government mass rally. The prosecution is insisting that he must bear responsibility for violent clashes between protesters and police officers on the night of May 1.
“The judge is obviously allowed to restrict journalists who are in contempt but there should be a valid reason,” Misbah said.
The criminal court was not responding to calls at the time of publication.
The court had also barred journalists from the opposition-aligned Raajje TV from attending hearings in March, during former President Mohamed Nasheed’s high-profile terrorism trial.
The private station was accused of “spreading lies about judges, meddling in judges personal affairs and engaging in actions that may harm judges” after a cameraman videotaped an alleged meeting between Judge Bari and then-Prosecutor General Muhthaz Muhsin.
Bari was among the three-judge panel that sentenced both Nasheed and ex-Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim to prison after widely criticised trials. The pair’s imprisonment in early 2015 triggered a prolonged political crisis in the Maldives.
At the final hearing of Nasheed’s trial, Misbah and two other journalists were prohibited from leaving the court building in between hearings.
“The sad thing is that there is no independent body concerned about these things,” Misbah said.
“The three of us filed the case with the Police, they said that it was not in their jurisdiction and declined to look into the case. So we filed the case with the national human rights watchdog, they said they were looking into the case but have not responded since.”
Misbah went on to accuse Judge Bari of trying to intimidate the press as part of a wider effort to prevent exposure of rampant corruption.
“There is so much corruption going on within the government and the judiciary. What we are seeing now are just efforts to scare off the press to stop these things from coming to light,” he suggested.
“If we are writing dishonest reports the national broadcasting commission and the media council are the people that can take action against us.”
Mohamed Asif, president of the Maldives Media Council, told The Maldives Independent that the council is deeply concerned about the court’s decision to bar Misbah.
“We always try to facilitate fair opportunities for journalists and for press freedom. It is deeply concerning and disappointing when a certain journalist or reported from a certain outlet are barred from courtrooms. We will be looking into this matter,” he said.
Asif said the council will discuss the matter with the criminal court as well.
“If discussing the matter with the court does not bring a solution, the council will decide what other measures can be taken within their mandate,” he said.
In a separate development, Imran last week asked the Supreme Court to change the presiding judge in his trial, claiming that Bari is prejudiced against him.
After heated exchanges at a previous hearing, Bari had threatened to expel Imran’s lawyer Husnu Suood from the courtroom. He also told lawyer Ali Zahir to refrain from “giving religious sermons.”
Imran’s trial began in June with the same three-judge panel who sentenced Nasheed and Nazim, but two of the three – Judge Abdulla Didi and Sujau Usman – were promoted to the High Court soon afterwards, stalling the trial for five months.
When hearings resumed earlier this month, Bari announced that the three-judge panel had been dissolved and said he alone would handle the case.
Bari had reportedly declared that he has “already made a decision on this case” during a hearing on January 18.
Bari is among several judges who applied for a vacant seat on the High Court bench earlier this month.
In 2013, the watchdog Judicial Service Commission had suspended Bari for over a year pending the outcome of a complaint lodged against him for alleged misconduct.
Although the commission did not reveal any details of the complaint, local media reported that a female attorney from the Prosecutor General’s Office had alleged that Bari had sexually assaulted her.
Bari was cleared of the allegations and resumed duties at the criminal court in July, 2014.