Maldives’ Fragile Democracy: The Judiciary’s Failings

“Justice delayed is democracy denied.” This timeless adage, often attributed to William Gladstone, aptly captures the current state of democracy in the Maldives. In a nation where azure waters and luxury resorts mask a turbulent political landscape, the judiciary stands as one of the most compromised state institutions, playing a role in the country’s democratic decline.

The judiciary is not Maldivian democracy’s only problem for it is grappling with several key concerns. Political instability remains rampant, with frequent changes in government through contentious means. Freedom of expression is severely restricted, with journalists and activists facing harassment and violence. Electoral integrity is questioned due to allegations of vote rigging and voter intimidation. Human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and torture, persist. However, it is the compromised judiciary that poses the most serious challenge to democracy and public life in Maldives for it undermines the rule of law, enabling and perpetuating other democratic deficits, including human rights violations.

Marred by political interference and corruption, the Judiciary is effectively rendered as an instrument of power rather than justice. The recent acquittal of suspects in high-profile attacks on journalists starkly illustrates this malaise. In November 2023, the Criminal Court acquitted the last two suspects in attacks on journalists that had shocked the nation. Civil society groups had long criticized these trials for their delays and alleged political interference. According to Human Rights Watch, these acquittals are emblematic of a broader pattern where justice is not served, especially when powerful interests are at stake.

The roots of judicial compromise can be traced back to the autocratic rule of Presidents Ibrahim Nasir and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Under Gayoom, whose three decade rule ended in 2008, the executive tightly controlled the judiciary. The 1998 imprisonment of opposition leader Mohammed Nasheed was a case in point. Despite the adoption of a new constitution in 2008, which aimed to establish an independent judiciary, the legacy of executive dominance persists. The 2008 constitution established the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to oversee judicial appointments and discipline. However, the JSC itself has been plagued by political influence. According to a report by the European Union Election Observation Mission, the selection and promotion of judges remain heavily influenced by political affiliations rather than merit.

Former President Abdulla Yameen, convicted of corruption and sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2022, was released shortly after the 2023 presidential election. This release, facilitated by President-elect Mohamed Muizzu, underscores the judiciary’s susceptibility to political maneuvering. As Human Rights Watch notes, Yameen’s release was widely perceived as a politically motivated act, undermining the rule of law. In another egregious example, the suspects in the 2014 forced disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the 2017 murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed were acquitted. The prolonged delays and eventual acquittals in these cases reflect a judiciary unable to deliver justice due to external pressures. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, these outcomes highlight a judiciary that bends to political will rather than upholding justice. The judiciary has also been used to disqualify and imprison political opponents. The 2015 prosecution of former President Mohamed Nasheed on terrorism charges was criticized by most independent observers for lacking due process. According to Amnesty International, Nasheed’s trial was emblematic of a judiciary wielded as a tool of political retribution.

For the Maldives to revive its democratic aspiration, it must reclaim the judiciary’s independent role. Key reforms should include establishing transparent criteria and competitive processes for judicial appointments. Reforming the Judicial Service Commission to minimize political influence is crucial. Providing ongoing legal education and training to judges, emphasizing human rights and constitutional law, would enhance their competence and impartiality. Additionally, independent bodies that oversee judicial conduct and investigate allegations of misconduct impartially would strengthen accountability. Ensuring judicial proceedings and decisions are accessible to the public fosters trust in the judiciary. However, the most crucial step is for the Executive to respect boundaries and the principle of separation of powers by refraining from interfering in judicial matters, thereby upholding the judiciary’s independence and integrity.

The judiciary’s lack of independence is not just a legal problem; it is a profound threat to democracy in the Maldives. As long as justice can be swayed by political power, the very foundation of democracy remains precarious. It is imperative for Maldivian society, with support from the international community, to undertake these critical reforms. Only then can the Maldives hope to transform its judiciary from an instrument of power into a true guardian of justice. In the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, “Justice must be rooted in confidence, and confidence is destroyed when right-minded people go away thinking: ‘The judge was biased.’” For the Maldives, rebuilding this confidence is not just a necessity but a democratic imperative.

About the Author:  Sultan Mohammed Zakaria is an associate editor of South Asia Perspectives (SAP). He is a writer, educator, and researcher with more than a decade of experience in studying democratic governance and geopolitics in the South Asia region.

Zakaria’s expertise lies in democratic deficits, human rights and citizenship education, and geopolitics of South Asia.

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