A group of international NGOs have called on the Supreme Court to lift the suspension of more than 50 lawyers who signed a petition calling for judicial reform, criticising the lack of due process before the unprecedented move.
“None of the 56 lawyers has been allowed to exercise their right to defend themselves or be heard before a disciplinary action,” reads a joint statement from the International Commission of Jurists, Transparency International, Forum Asia, and Frontline Defenders together with local NGO Maldivian Democracy Network.
“Furthermore, it is clear that all 56 lawyers have been penalised before an apparent investigation was conducted over allegations.”
The suspension of nearly one-third of practising lawyers in the Maldives was “procedurally and substantively, incompatible with international law and standards,” it added.
In the absence of a bar association or regulatory body for Maldivian lawyers, the NGOs stressed that the suspended lawyers have no redress mechanism to challenge the disciplinary action. The apex court has also previously quashed civil cases filed by suspended lawyers on the basis that its decisions cannot be reviewed, they noted.
“The summary suspension of the 56 lawyers for demanding judicial reform only vindicates their concerns about the Supreme Court’s arbitrary exercise of its powers,” the statement continued.
“The judiciary of the Maldives has been dogged by persistent censure from local and international human rights bodies, including the UN Human Rights Council, over the lack of independence and frequent violations of a right to fair trial.”
Most recently, the UN high commissioner for human rights reiterated concerns last week over “reports of continued violations of the right to fair trial, and allegations of political bias by the judiciary”.
In contrast to strong condemnation from the opposition and concern from Western embassies, the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives welcomed the mass suspension. MP Dr Abdulla Khaleel, the PPM’s secretary-general, accused the lawyers of working with the opposition to destabilise the nation.
— EU to the Maldives (@EU_Maldives) September 11, 2017
— James Dauris (@JamesDauris) September 11, 2017
Suspension of 54 lawyers in #Maldives reinforces rather than allays concerns re:independence of the judiciary-an essential for any democracy
— Canada in Sri Lanka (@CanHCSriLanka) September 12, 2017
At a press conference the day after the suspension, the lawyers meanwhile vowed to continue their campaign for judicial reform despite professional difficulties caused by the ban from appearing in court.
“There are some 170 lawyers registered to give counsel at the criminal court. All 54 lawyers who were suspended represent at least one client. That leaves only around 70 lawyers to run things excluding the 40-something public prosecutors,” said Anas Abdul Sattar.
Mahfooz Saeed, a prominent lawyer, said: “I believe the accusation towards the chief justice and the judiciary are warranted. Even if you cannot see something outright wrong there are many things judges are doing that provokes these questions. Justice has to be seen to be done as well as applied.”
Husnu Suood, a former attorney general, told that the Maldives Independent that judges need to take responsibility and lead the reform cause.
“Individual judges have to regulate and keep their own discipline. I’m saying this because at the moment I don’t see judges making an effort to be respected whether it is individually or collectively,” he said.
He called on judges to refrain from questionable actions.
“For example, judges can’t be seen abroad with a businessman. He cannot just leave for Spain to watch a game between Barcelona and Real Madrid when there are tons of cases to be finished. He can’t swear at a suspect and then sit on the bench and judge him,” he said.
The human rights groups meanwhile warned that the mass suspension “will take away the right of legal representation of several people, among those human rights activists, political prisoners and victims of severe injustices,” which poses “a serious threat to the work of human rights defenders within the legal community.”
The NGOs also dismissed the accusation that the lawyers unlawfully gathered outside the Supreme Court. About half of the 56 lawyers were part of the group that tried to submit the petition, which was summarily rejected by the court’s registrar.
The mass suspension came a day after the lawyers submitted the petition to the Attorney General’s office along with a symbolic giant copy of the constitution.
“The lawyers standing outside the court did not form a group to protest or hold a demonstration there, as it is clear that the lawyers stood outside for not longer than a few minutes,” the NGOs said.
The suspension announcement stated the 54 lawyers were under investigation for “obstructing the independence of the judiciary and the independence of the judges by forming a group and illegally assembling outside the Supreme Court, remarking on the duties of the judiciary and attempting to influence the courts by preparing and signing an illegal document against both the jurisdiction, procedures and decisions of the courts in violation of the Article 141 (c) and (d) of the Constitution of the Maldives, the Regulation on the Legal Counsels Practicing in the Maldivian Courts and the Declaration contained in the Schedule 1 of the said Regulation, Regulation of Contempt of Court, the Judicature Act of Maldives, the Regulation of the Supreme Court of Maldives and the Constitution of the Maldives.”