President Abdulla Yameen plans to free up to 300 or more inmates convicted for petty crimes under a new clemency policy, Home Minister Ahmed Azleen announced Sunday.
The minister told inmates at the Maafushi Jail that Yameen “loves you a lot” and plans “to commute the sentences of our brothers and sisters in jail who fit a certain category”.
All inmates except for those found guilty of murder, terrorism, sexual assault and drug trafficking will qualify for a presidential pardon under the new rules set in December.
The regulation, titled “A special chance provided by the president to those who disavow criminal behaviour and want to reintegrate into society” applies to petty criminals who have served one fourth of their sentences.
The “special chance” appears to be a one-time opportunity, as the rules state that the committee to assess inmates’ eligibility will be dissolved after it makes recommendations to the president.
Azleen said: “We are about to see a lot of Maldivian inmates, whether it is 200 or 300 or even more of those who fall into these categories and those who filtered through, we hope they will get this very generous pardon by his excellency the president.”
The plan for mass pardons is the latest in an effort by the government to rehabilitate petty criminals: The prosecutor general’s office, under a policy deferring prosecution for first-time offenders, has declined to charge some 613 offenders since 2015, while the home ministry has expunged criminal records of thousands of young offenders.
The special chance policy will also help alleviate overcrowding at Maldivian prisons. The prison system has an estimated capacity of 885, but more than 1500 people were serving jail time at the end of 2015, according to government figures.
The vetting committee, to be set up by the home ministry, will review the inmate’s conduct in jail, past criminal record, remorse for crime committed, prospects for employment and willingness of families to facilitate their rehabilitation.
Inmates serving more than one jail sentence should have served one-fourth of their current sentence to qualify.
Urging inmates to pray to Allah for freedom, Azleen said: “In an instance where such a blessing is opening up, what should be most important for inmates is exceptional obedience and compliance with prison officer’s orders and keeping your behavioural conduct within those envisioned by prison officers so that you get first place.”
The home minister previously told local media that inmates who are freed must participate in programmes on “how to behave in society, religious norms, family relationships and other such matters.”
The new policy is based on wide discretion afforded to the president by the 2010 Clemency Act.
Article 29 of the law gives the president the discretion “to commute the sentence of a person convicted of a criminal offence on the grounds of age, health, treatment they are undergoing, their status and circumstances, or from a humanitarian perspective.”
Yameen has previously refused to use the clause to pardon jailed opposition leaders, such as former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was sentenced to 13 years in jail on controversial charges of terrorism.
“More discretion means more mistakes,” he said last May.
In June, he set rules limiting the discretion granted to him by Article 29, stating that inmates convicted of serious crimes, such as terrorism and murder, can only qualify for clemency after they serve half of their sentences.
Human rights groups alleged that the rules were set to block any legal avenue to release political opponents.
Statistics on presidential pardons are not publicly available.
The president’s office in April 2014 announced that Yameen has granted pardons to 169 convicts. He had commuted sentences for 24 inmates that January.
In July of the same year, he said criminal records of some 3,588 young people had expunged since he assumed office.
Critics claim the policies for young offenders are in fact aimed at buying the loyalty of Malé’s gangs. They point to multiple pictures of the president and First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim with members of gangs and a 2015 incident in which Yameen pardoned an associate of a ruling party MP who was sentenced to ten years in prison on drug trafficking charges.
Ismail Shaheem’s release followed the Progressive Party of the Maldives-dominated parliament amending the clemency law to reduce the period an inmate must have served from one-third of sentence to one-fourth.
Shaheem was greeted at Maafushi Jail by PPM MP Ibrahim Shujau and alleged drug kingpin Ibrahim Shafaz. “Don’t say we CAN’T… HE IS OUT…,” Shafaz wrote in a Facebook post afterwards.
Nasheed, who was ousted following a police and army mutiny, met vociferous criticism by Yameen when he introduced a similar programme called the “Second Chance” in which prisoners were freed under a parole system.
Soon after Nasheed’s ouster, then-home minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, who became Yameen’s vice president and is now the leader of the opposition, scrapped the Second Chance programme labelling it an attempt to “release unqualified criminals under political influence and without any clear procedure”.