After three years of deliberation, the high court has ruled that the president of the Maldives may not commute the death penalty for individuals convicted of first-degree murder, if all of the victim’s heirs desire capital punishment.
The ruling is a blow to human rights groups who have been urging the government to reinstate a moratorium on the death penalty.
The death penalty was last enforced here in 1953.
In a complex ruling issued on Sunday, judges said that it is only the heirs of a victim who can pardon a convicted killer, meaning the president cannot intervene.
They cited the Islamic principle of qisas outlined in the Quran and Prophet Muhammad’s hadith as the basis for the ruling. Qisas or “retaliation in kind” means the right of a murder victim’s relatives to take the life of a convicted killer.
It is only permissible when all heirs desire the enforcement of the death penalty.
“When a person is found guilty of intentional murder in accordance with legal procedures, and when all of the victim’s heirs want qisas, and when there is no legal obstruction to do so, the head of state is obliged to implement the death sentence, just as a judge is obliged to sentence the murderer to death,” the verdict read.
The panel of five judges relied on the Islamic Sharia because Article 10 of the Constitution states that the state religion is Islam and states that no law contrary contrary to Islam may be enforced in the Maldives.
There is more to the ruling.
Although it states that the head of state cannot intervene in cases where qisas is permissible, he or she can commute death sentences for other offences.
The ruling was issued after a group of five death penalty advocates asked the appellate court to strike down two provisions in the 2010 Clemency Act that grant the president the authority to commute death sentence to life imprisonment.
The two provisions are Article 21 and Article 5.
Article 21 allows the president “to alter the death sentence to life imprisonment, taking to consideration the status of the offender, the relevant sharia principles, state interest, and humanitarian standards,” while Article 5 allows the president to commute sentences for the “offence of murder.”
The judges decided not to annul the provisions.
This is because judges said that the “offence of murder” specified in Article 5 includes three types of murder: first-degree or intentional and premeditated killing, voluntary manslaughter or killing without prior intent, and involuntary manslaughter or a killing that results from an act without the intent of murder.
Further, since Article 21 states the president must consider “relevant sharia principles,” this means he or she cannot intervene in first-degree murder cases where all heirs want to enforce the death sentence.
Judges also ruled that the president can commute sentences for individuals sentenced to death for offences other than murder.
Recently annulled laws including the 1990 Anti Terrorism Act and the 1968 Penal Code enforce the death sentences for a variety of offences, including attempts on the president’s life and terrorism.
Additional writing by Zaheena Rasheed