MP Faris Maumoon’s bribery trial began Monday with the presiding judge refusing to release the former ruling party lawmaker after more than two months in custody.
Dismissing the defence counsel’s arguments, Judge Ali Adam said Faris will remain behind bars because the court believes he may tamper with evidence or attempt to influence witnesses if he is freed.
The MP for Dhiggaru went on to plead not guilty to the bribery charge after sparring with the state prosecutor, who was unable to say when he gave the bribe or how much money was involved.
According to Prosecutor Aishath Mohamed, a lawmaker who would remain anonymous confessed to accepting a bribe from Faris on a date after April 10.
The exact date and the amount of money would become clear during the examination of the secret witness, she said.
In addition to the anonymous lawmaker, the prosecution’s witnesses include three policemen who searched Faris’s apartment before his arrest on July 18.
A call recording and text messages from the phone of Jumhooree Party activist Ahmed Shafiu – who was also arrested on bribery charges in July but was released by the High Court – was also submitted as evidence.
The August 23 decision in Shafiu’s case was cited by the defence lawyer as grounds to release Faris. According to the appeal court ruling, bribery cannot be considered a serious crime and suspects arrested for committing minor offences cannot be held in remand detention for more than 15 days.
But the prosecutor contended that Shafiu was released due to a lack of evidence whereas the circumstances were different in Faris’s case.
The judge also rejected the defence’s objection to the Prosecutor General’s office revising the charge against Faris from accepting bribes to offering to bribe fellow lawmakers to impeach the speaker of parliament.
Judge Ali Adam concluded proceedings after announcing that the next hearing would take place on October 24.
The defence counsel was asked to submit evidence, a list of witnesses and case documents before October 17.
Before his arrest, Faris – son of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – was leading the push to unseat Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed after his father joined forces with the opposition in late March.
The criminal court detained Faris for the duration of the bribery trial despite the police having yet to conclude the investigation or the Prosecutor General deciding to press charges.
The High Court was meanwhile expected to rule on the legality of Faris’s arrest and detention last Monday but the hearing was cancelled on short notice.
The presiding judge on the three-judge panel hearing the appeal was also replaced with Judge Shujau Usman, who was promoted to the appellate court bench after presiding over the controversial trial of former President Mohamed Nasheed.
Usman was among three judges who were transferred to the High Court’s southern branch in Addu City. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court recalled the three judges to the main branch in Malé, citing the need to clear a growing backlog of cases by the end of the year.
On Friday, Amnesty International meanwhile raised “serious fair trial concerns” over the bribery case.
“The Maldives has long denied members of the political opposition a fair trial. There have been convictions on trumped-up charges, for all sorts of alleged offences from trespassing to terrorism. There are serious concerns that Faris Maumoon will suffer the same fate. He must be given a fair trial in line with international standards,” said Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director.
“For the Maldivian justice system to be worthy of the name, judicial independence must be restored. As long as judges remain beholden to the political whims of the government, travesties will ensue.”
Faris is also on trial over the alleged unauthorised use of the flag and logo of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives at a joint opposition press conference.
The identity fraud trial is due to resume on October 8.
Faris was expelled from the PPM in July last year for voting against government-sponsored legislation at his father’s behest.
The PPM was split into rival factions after an acrimonious leadership dispute between Gayoom and his half-brother President Abdulla Yameen.
Yameen won the battle for control of the PPM after the civil court stripped the elder Gayoom of his powers as the party’s elected leader and lifted his suspension of the party’s council.
The court ordered Yameen to resume council meetings under his leadership and the governing body promptly put him in charge of the party. But Gayoom reacted by reconstituting the council and appointing loyalists to key posts, maintaining that the PPM charter prohibits a sitting president, who has a symbolic role as advisor, from managing the party.
The 79-year-old former strongman went on to sign a pact with opposition leaders to form a broad coalition in late March.