Lawmakers have hailed a proposed new evidence law as key to strengthening the criminal justice system and addressing longstanding challenges faced by the judiciary.
The evidence bill submitted on behalf of the government by MP Ali Shah of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives was accepted 59-1 with five abstentions at Monday’s sitting and sent to a committee for review.
“The objective of the bill is to ensure that the people get a fair trial by detailing and clarifying the procedure for evidence, one of the most basic aspects in the right for determining the use of evidence in court proceedings,” Shah said while introducing the bill.
The existing evidence law enacted in 1976 is two pages long. Along with a one-sentence 1972 Act on Female Witnesses, the outdated evidence law has since been used to collect, analyse, and process evidence.
The new bill was drafted in consultation with legal experts and Islamic Shariah scholars. It outlines procedures for collecting, submitting, accepting and analysing evidence at court, and sets evidentiary standards and admissibility rules for civil and criminal offences.
The law would also introduce measures for witness protection, the absence of which has been blamed for failure to secure convictions in high-profile murder and assault cases after key witnesses amended or retracted their testimony due to suspected intimidation.
It also specifies criteria for accepting witnesses as well as conditions for asking leading questions during witness examination or cross-examination and sets forth procedures for the submission and analysis of documentary, physical, and digital evidence, including audio, video and forensic evidence.
A consensus meanwhile emerged during the preliminary debate on the bill that a comprehensive new evidence law is long overdue in order to fully assure the constitutional right to a free and fair trial.
MP Ibrahim Shareef of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party noted the absence of procedures to submit scientific forensic evidence at trial and highlighted the importance of providing protection to witnesses.
Jaufar Dawood from the ruling party suggested that the law would improve public confidence in the judiciary.
“In major cases, judges have been suspected of not accepting evidence provided by defence lawyers and of not properly referring to evidence. With a bill like this, that includes all these sections, this will end that type of talk,” he said.
Stressing the need for wide-ranging judicial reform, opposition MPs meanwhile reiterated criticism of the “politicised” judiciary and alleged corruption by judges.
“The reason why we don’t have free and fair trials and just rulings here in the Maldives is not because there aren’t enough procedures and codes and laws, not because there hasn’t been a constitution,” said MP Ali Azim.
“It is because many judges here can’t accept the Islamic procedures and rules…We have to believe we aren’t able to have fair trials because judges, and those investigating us, always think about how to add weight to their pockets.”
Echoing Azim’s criticism, MP Imthiyaz Fahmy, a non-practising lawyer, said prosecutors and judges are well aware of fair trial standards. “But without accepting these principles, from the bottom of their hearts, if we have a bill like this, it wouldn’t do us any favours,” he said.
However, PPM MP Mohamed ‘Kutti’ Nasheed, a former legal reform minister, described the bill as “revolutionary”.
“In the eight years since we have talked of reforming the judiciary, there are always three laws that are referred to: penal code, the criminal procedures code. Both have passed. Today, we have the third here,” he said.
“If these three laws work together, and as other members have said, if they are used correctly, this isn’t just a good change in the criminal justice system. This isn’t just any change. This is a revolutionary change.”
Nasheed continued: “Why does evidence become evidence, why evidence is not evidence, how to classify types of evidence and grade them, what can and cannot be accepted as evidence, how evidence corroborates, all this is clearly specified in this bill.
“And also, what constitutes an acceptable level of proof is much debated amongst us. This [bill] clearly specifies in great detail in clear language, the civil and criminal boundaries, what the requirements are for civil cases, and what constitutes as adequate proof, what the requirements are for criminal cases are and how to determine adequate proof.”