The Maldives human rights institution and watchdog body for law enforcement agencies have failed to ensure an effective system for oversight and accountability, visiting UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer told the local press on Sunday.
Briefing the press on his preliminary observations after an eight-day visit, Melzer noted that despite hundreds of complaints submitted to the Human Rights Commission and National Integrity Commission since the 2013 anti-torture law was enacted, “no Maldivian official has ever been held accountable, nor has any victim received redress, if only through official acknowledgment on the part of the government.”
The Prosecutor General’s office routinely dismissed cases citing lack of sufficient evidence, he added, which suggests “either a grave systemic shortcoming in the investigative mechanisms put in place or a complete lack of political will to hold officials accountable.”
Of 275 torture cases reported since December 2013, 110 were dismissed after investigation, 97 were closed without prosecution, 38 cases were closed due to lack of cooperation from the parties and only 14 cases were ongoing as of November last year. According to the 2019 anti-torture report, 43 cases were reported to the human rights watchdog, which sought charges in four cases involving police officers. But the PG office returned three cases citing lack of evidence.
Melzer also flagged the failure to launch a criminal investigation against policemen who were filmed beating up an unarmed suspect in July.
“Whatever may be the cause for the apparent systematic failure of the Maldivian authorities to prosecute and punish torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, it results in near-complete impunity for serious official misconduct and a profound erosion of public confidence in the integrity and reliability of police and the judiciary,” he said.
The UN rights expert urged the government to reaffirm a zero-tolerance policy for torture, announce severe disciplinary punishments for violations, strengthen capacity of investigative bodies, and to train police, soldiers and corrections officers.
– Other concerns –
The other main issue was the “alarming humanitarian situation” of migrant workers, Melzer said, welcoming the government’s regularisation programme to register undocumented workers.
During the fact-finding mission, Melzer met government officials, lawmakers and judges as well as representatives of civil society and national human rights mechanisms, lawyers, academics, activists, victims and their families. He also visited prions, detention centres and state-run facilities.
The biggest problem Melzer found was overcrowding due to the automatic incarceration of pre-trial detainees “mainly for minor drug offences, in conjunction often with excessive delay in investigative process and judicial proceedings as well as significant infrastructural limitations.”
Prisons were 100 to 150 percent beyond actual capacity, he observed. The main prison on Maafushi island has a capacity of 655 male and 55 female prisoners but was holding 969 male and 53 female convicts. The remand capacity was for 73 detainees but there were 119 detainees awaiting trial.
In many cases, prisoners did not have their own bed or mattresses and lacked access to fresh air and physical, educational, recreational or vocational activity. Some cells were hot, humid and badly ventilated.
There were complaints about unnecessary delays in providing medical care due to lack of facilities and alleged negligence of prison officers. “The lack of forensic medial training in the Maldives, infrastructure or support renders the investigation and documentation of torture very difficult and in many cases impossible,” Melzer said, referring to cases of custodial deaths.
Allegations were made against prison guards of beating or kicking juvenile detainees, he continued, recommending steps to ensure “adequate material conditions” for holding juvenile detainees.
Other concerns included a statute of limitations for cases of torture, failure to provide a public defender for suspects who could not afford lawyers, prisoners being allowed only two seven-minute phone calls a month, lack of a medical entry examination for new prisoners and an amendment brought to the Prisons and Parole Act in 2015 that made daily access to fresh air for high-security prisoners subject to the discretion of prison authorities.
Concerns over corporal punishment and the death penalty were meanwhile “due to weaknesses of the investigative processes in the country, which often lacked the capacity to objectively establish the facts, identify causal trains and determine legal responsibilities with sufficient reliability.”
Melzer was invited by the government to assess “wide-ranging, systemic reforms of the country’s institutions in response to past acts of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment,” according to the UN. A comprehensive report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021.