The judicial authorities have revoked the suspension of 13 out of 54 lawyers who were barred from appearing in court for signing a petition for judicial reform.
On Monday, the Department of Judicial Administration, which functions under the Supreme Court, announced that the suspension was lifted after the investigation of their cases was completed.
The 54 lawyers were suspended last week pending a contempt of court inquiry for allegedly “obstructing the independence of the judiciary and the independence of the judges by forming a group and illegally assembling outside the Supreme Court”.
The lawyers were also accused of “interfering with the work of the judiciary, attempting to exert influence, writing an unlawful document in violation of the jurisdictions, procedures and judgements of the courts, signing that document, [and] creating difficulties for the Maldivian judiciary”.
The unprecedented 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 petition was previously summarily rejected by the Supreme Court’s registrar.
Among the concerns raised by the lawyers were judicial bias, unfair trial procedures and a lack of oversight.
On Sunday, some 35 lawyers who did not sign the petition urged Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed to allow the suspended lawyers to represent clients in court until the conclusion of the contempt of court inquiries.
They included former Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz Hussain, former High Court Judge Azmiralda Zahir and former Attorney General Dhiyana Saeed as well as lawyers Shaaheen Hameed, Maumoon Hameed and Hussain Siraj.
In a letter to the apex court, the group stressed that the best practice in such instances was to defer punishment, adding that the mass suspension was a matter of public interest as it affects the numerous clients of the disciplined counsels.
The prominent lawyers urged the court to expedite the inquiries and appealed for “a fair, just and humane inquiry.”
Last Friday, Amnesty International also echoed calls from a group of international NGOs for the Supreme Court to immediately revoke the suspension of the lawyers, calling the move “a relentless assault on the rule of law”.
“The justification invoked by the DJA rides roughshod over the lawyers’ rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression, all protected under international human rights law which the Maldives are legally bound to comply with,” the human rights group said.
“Far from promoting judicial independence, the DJA is a pliant tool in the hands of the Maldivian authorities, who are cynically manipulating the criminal justice system to serve political goals and stop lawyers from carrying out their legitimate work representing their clients.”
Amnesty also warned that the suspension would have “a chilling effect on any independent-minded lawyers still able to represent their clients in court.”
In a joint statement last week, the International Commission of Jurists, Transparency International, Forum Asia, and Frontline Defenders together with local NGO Maldivian Democracy Network condemned the lack of due process before the suspension.
“None of the 56 lawyers has been allowed to exercise their right to defend themselves or be heard before a disciplinary action,” the NGOs said.
The suspension of nearly one-third of practising lawyers in the Maldives was “procedurally and substantively incompatible with international law and standards,” they added.
The lawyers whose suspension were lifted were Abdulla Ahmed, Abdul Salaam Arif, Ali Nadeem, Majidha Majdhee, Abdul Maniu Hussain, Abdulla Naseer Mohamed, Ahmed Shan, Mohamed Shahid, Mohamed Fawwaz, Anoosa Moosa, Khadeeja Naeem, Zimna Abdul Muhsin and Ibrahim Shiyam.
Amnesty meanwhile went on to note criticism of the Maldivian judiciary from the former UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers in early 2013.
Among the shortcomings identified by Gabriela Knaul during a fact-finding visit included “the misrepresentation of the concepts of independence of the judiciary and accountability; doubts over the procedures for the selection and appointment of judges; the lack of transparency and effectiveness of the Judicial Service Commission; the lack of protection for judicial actors; the precarious situation for women in the justice system; the enduring effects of impunity for past human rights violations; and the lack of public trust in the judicial system.”
On disciplinary measures, she wrote: “Lawyers, like all other citizens, are entitled to freedom of expression and, in particular, they have the right to take part in public discussions concerning the law, the administration of justice, and the protection and promotion of human rights, without suffering professional restrictions.”
Amnesty recommended that the authorities “implement effective reforms that protect the independence of the judiciary and the independence of lawyers, including through the establishment of an independent bar association, and bolstering the capacity of the hitherto feeble judicial watchdog.”
It added: “The Maldivian government cannot persist with crude and heavyhanded practices that reduce the judiciary and the criminal justice system as a whole to a pliant instrument of its political whims.”