The administrative arm of the Maldives judiciary has lifted the suspension of 16 lawyers who signed a petition calling for judicial reform.
The Department of Judicial Administration – which functions under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court – announced Saturday that the suspension was lifted after the investigation of their cases was completed.
According to local media, the lawyers formally apologised in writing for signing the petition and causing offence.
The DJA previously lifted the suspension of 13 out of the 54 lawyers who were barred from appearing in court on September 10. The 54 lawyers, who represented one-third of licensed practitioners in the country, were suspended 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”.
They 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 drew widespread condemnation with Amnesty International calling the move “a relentless assault on the rule of law”.
The International Commission of Jurists, the Supreme Court Bar Association of India, and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka joined the chorus of concern last week.
The latter urged the executive “to intervene and to ensure safety and security of the lawyers together with their right to engage in the profession,” in a statement released Friday.
In an open letter to the chief justice, the ICJ – comprised of 60 leading jurists – expressed concern that the suspension could have “a chilling effect on others in the legal profession” and deter criticism of the apex court.
“This concern is particularly acute given the absence of a professional bar association or other independent organisations in the country to advocate for the collective interests of lawyers,” the ICJ said.
The suspension violated the right of the lawyers to both freedom of expression and due process, it added, noting the absence of any disciplinary proceedings where the lawyers could have defended themselves.
The lawyers sought to mount a legal challenge to the suspension but the civil court last week rejected their lawsuit, citing lack of jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has previously quashed civil cases filed by suspended lawyers on the basis that its decisions cannot be reviewed.
In a 2013 report, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers had also expressed concern over action against lawyers by the courts and highlighted the need for an independent self-regulating bar association to oversee the process of admitting candidates to the legal profession.
Lawyers are left with no avenue for appeal or review when the Supreme Court takes action, she observed.
“The regulation of disciplinary measures against lawyers falls outside the prerogative of the judiciary or any other branch of power and contradicts the principle of independence of the legal profession,” she said.
The ICJ meanwhile went on to note that the Supreme Court has faced stringent criticism in recent years for its “lack of independence and overreach,” referring to its controversial dismissal of the former president and vice president of the Elections Commission over alleged contempt of court and suo moto proceedings against members of the Human Rights Commission.
The judiciary also came under fire over “politicisation,” inadequate qualification of judges, and lack of conformity to international fair trial standards during a review of the human rights situation in the Maldives in May 2015.
In September last year, a former Kenyan chief justice who visited the Maldives as an envoy of the Commonwealth’s secretary-general, called for “root and branch judicial reform”.
Dr Willy Mutunga described the Maldivian judiciary as “deeply politicised and compromised, and willing to disregard the principles of natural justice”.