Two former criminal court judges who presided over the first hearing of opposition leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla’s terror trial are among a three-judge panel hearing the appeal of his conviction.
The appeal hearings began at the High Court today with Judges Abdulla Didi, Sujau Usman and Abdulla Hameed presiding.
Didi and Usman, two former criminal court judges, were promoted to the High Court days after they heard the state’s charges against Imran and ruled that he should be kept in state custody until a verdict was reached. The pair’s transfer stalled the trial for nearly eight months.
When Imran’s lawyers protested Didi and Usman’s inclusion on the panel today, the judges claimed they were eligible to hear the appeal as they had not heard oral arguments at the lower court.
In his opening statement, Imran’s lawyer Ali Zahir asked the court to overturn the criminal court verdict on the grounds that the judge who delivered the ruling had breached rules of conduct and ethical standards.
When hearings resumed in Imran’s trial in January, Judge Abdul Bari Yoosuf announced that the initial three-judge panel overseeing the case had been dissolved and said he alone would handle the case.
On February 16, Imran was found guilty of inciting violence in his speech at a 20,000-strong protest march in May last year and sentenced to 12 years in prison. His conviction marked the first terrorism sentence passed in the Maldives over a speech made at a political gathering.
Zahir noted today that Bari had declared that he has “already made a decision on the case” during a hearing held on January 18.
A local human rights NGO, Maldivian Democracy Network, had also criticised Bari’s conduct during the opposition leader’s trial, describing his behaviour as “prejudicial” towards the accused as well as in breach of the code of conduct for judges.
The judge “talked in a manner that gave the impression that he was talking on behalf of the prosecutor or that he was leaning favourably towards their arguments,” the NGO said.
Bari had also refused to hear testimony from defence witnesses during the trial.
State prosecutors, however, argued that there was no evidence to prove Bari was prejudiced. The state does not believe that the High Court can rule on procedural issues in an appeal of a guilty verdict, the prosecutors said.
Imran’s lawyers also argued that his May Day speech was taken out of context and misinterpreted, contending that the state had failed to establish that the speech directly led to violence.
In response, the state prosecutors said Imran’s speech was “inflammatory” and led to violent clashes between protesters and riot police, which he had not attempted to control.
Today’s hearing was concluded with the judges announcing that a “second hearing would be held soon.”
Along with Bari, Judges Didi and Usman were part of a three-judge criminal court panel that sentenced former President Mohamed Nasheed and former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim to 13 years and 11 years in prison, respectively, in March last year.
The opposition has labeled Didi and Usman’s transfer to the High Court a reward for jailing Nasheed and Nazim.
The rushed trials, which triggered an ongoing political crisis, were widely condemned over apparent lack of due process.
The immediate release of the high-profile prisoners was one of the demands made by May Day protesters.
Imran was initially arrested on the night of May 1 and released after 27 days. He was arrested for a second time on June 1 and charged with terrorism. He was held in jail for more than 160 days, before being transferred to house arrest.
He was abruptly transferred to jail less than two weeks before the sentencing.
Bari is now the acting- chief judge of the criminal court.
The opposition is demanding the release of jailed politicians before they join government-initiated talks to end the crisis.