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Former members seek UN protection for human rights watchdog



United Nations

Two former commissioners of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives have filed a case at the UN to investigate reprisals against human rights defenders in the Maldives.

The petitioners Ahmed Tholal and Jeehan Mahmood were towards the end of their term the HRCM when they were prosecuted by the Supreme Court on charges of treason for submitting data to the UN about the lack of independence of the judiciary, its politicization and a host of other human rights infractions.

In the report, submitted as a part of Maldives Universal Periodic Review in 2014, the HRCM had said the Supreme Court controlled and influenced the lower courts to the detriment of the Maldivian judiciary.

The petition, filed by the International Service for Human Rights, is the first of its kind for the UN Human Rights Committee. It seeks a ruling stating that there is a legal right to submit information, evidence and reports to the UN and that restrictions on it – or reprisals for exercising this right – amounts to serious breaches of international law.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court had declared the report to be unlawful. It had also issued an 11-point guideline barring the HRCM from communicating with foreign organizations without government oversight.

Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed had delivered the verdict saying that the report submitted to the UN was biased, encouraged terrorists and undermined judicial independence in the Maldives.

The 11-point guideline orders the HRCM to protect unity, peace and order, and uphold Maldivian norms, faith, etiquette and the rule of law.

As the news of the petition was being circulated, the HRCM issued a statement on Friday saying that the 11-point guideline by the Supreme Court hindered the work of the commission.

In late 2015, the ruling-party dominated Parliament appointed its former MP Shifaq Mufeed as a Vice President of the HRCM. The terms of the petitioners were never renewed.

In March this year, Shifaq told the press that the guideline had not hampered the functioning of the commission. “We are working with full independence. The Maldivian judiciary has not rendered this commission powerless,” he said.

However the HRCM’s annual report for 2015 – made public in March – stated that the Supreme Court’s criminal case and the guideline against the commission was the “biggest challenge” it had faced.

The SC’s guidelines had earlier attracted criticism from the ISHR which called on the Maldives to restore independence of the national human rights body.

“For a member state of the UN Human Rights Council to retaliate against a national human rights institution for providing a report to the Council is tantamount to contempt and is plainly incompatible with membership of that body,” the ISHR said.

In a joint statement published by ISHR last week, Ahmed Tholal and Jeehan Mahmood said they wanted the HRCM’s right to freely communicate with international human rights mechanisms to be firmly preserved in law and practice.

“If the HRCM is not able to communicate freely with the UN, its ability to carry out its mandate is severely undermined. This case isn’t just about the HRCM of 2010. Rather it’s about the far reaching implications such reprisals will have on the independence and integrity of NHRI’s everywhere,” the statement reads.

ISHR’s legal counsel, Madeleine Sinclair, said the charges and guidelines issued against the commissioners constitute a reprisal for accessing and communicating with the UN and violate the right to free expression protected under international law.

“The decision of the Supreme Court to restrict the activities and independence of the Commission is incompatible with the right of safe and unhindered communication with UN bodies, and the prohibition against reprisals for exercising that right. Such a decision by an arm of government is a clear breach of international law,” said Sinclair.

Key international human rights defenders have also raised concerns about the restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court’s guidelines.

In June 2015, Gabriela Knaul and Michel Forst, UN special rapporteurs on independence of judges & lawyers and on the situation of human rights defenders respectively, had described the Supreme Court verdict as “an act of reprisal”.

On June 20, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the apex court’s 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”.