New Delhi: It has been a fraught night at the Maldives Supreme Court, where its judges have taken sanctuary in the face of threats following their extraordinary February 1 order to release all political prisoners and restore the parliamentary seats of disqualified MPs.
Sources in the Maldivian judiciary and bar confirmed to The Wire that the judges have taken refuge inside the premises of the Supreme Court after facing death threats.
While the source of these threats is not known, there were already clear signs that the government was closing in on the Supreme Court judges.
On Sunday afternoon, Maldives’ top legal officer, attorney general Mohamed Anil claimed that the Supreme Court was planning to dismiss President Abdulla Yameen.
Well-placed sources in the Maldivian legal system however denied this accusation, stating that “no much motion” had been started in the Supreme Court. “The court has the power, but it can be used in extremely rare circumstances. But, there was no such motion,” they said.
The February 1 judgment was the result of a widespread belief among the judges that President Yameen was “misleading” the international community under the excuse of executing the court’s orders. “He tells the foreign governments that he is just trying to implement the judiciary’s orders. This wasn’t true at all,” a source told The Wire.
The Maldives government has been facing criticism over the jailing and conviction of opposition leaders, as well as former government ministers. The nine political prisoners listed by the Supreme Court include former president Mohamed Nasheed, member of parliament Faris Maumoon, former vice president Ahmed Adeeb and former defence minister Mohamed Nazim.
There has been criticism in the West of the repeated arrest of government opponents and the disqualification of MPs. However, the Maldives government had always responded that its domestic legal processes should be respected, as the charges are serious. This argument was again expounded recently when the US, UK and EU jointly criticised the re-arrest of Faris Maumoon after his conditional release by court.
With the Yameen government showing no signs of implementing the February 1 order, the Maldives Supreme Court is bracing itself for the next challenge from the executive.
“We are expecting him to try to replace the entire Supreme Court bench with his own people,” said a highly-placed source. The government may try to convene parliament without the reinstated MPs and pass the required law without the opposition in the house, it is believed.
The key leverage that Yameen has over the Supreme Court has been the oversight body – the Judicial Services Commission. “It is an entirely political body, over which the president has near control,” said a legal source from Male.
That’s why the February 1 order made it clear that the JSC had “neither power nor jurisdiction to schedule or investigate complaints relating to the judges of the Supreme Court”.
The judges are well aware of President Yameen’s use of the JSC and parliament due to his precedence of having dismissed the chief justice in 2014 through these two constitutional bodies.
“Over the years, we have seen how the constitution has been undermined. Rule of Law has been turned on its head. There has been brutal dictatorship and systematic intimidation of judges,” said sources in the Maldives’ higher judiciary.
They admitted that most of that charges brought by the government had been politically motivated. “This is election year in Maldives… He (President Yameen) wants to be the only candidate in the fray. It was felt by the Supreme Court that it had a duty to the country as the custodian of the constitution”.
The sources told The Wire that when the February 1 order was passed, the judges had no expectation that Yameen would give in easily.
Seventy-two hours after their landmark order, Chief Justice Abdullah Saeed, other judges and senior court officials moved into to the premises of the Supreme Court on Sunday evening to avoid being arrested.
“On Saturday night, when the security forces came outside their residences, the judges believed that they would have been arrested if the crowd had not arrived,” said the sources.
The judges were already getting threatening calls from unlisted numbers. Maldivian security forces also made several rounds in the vicinity of the justices’ homes in the middle of the night, which was unnerving as the MNDF and police have sworn loyalty to the Yameen administration.
Sources claimed that a day before the court’s order, the government had sought to send a signal to the judiciary through the arrest of the apex court’s IT department chief on charges of possession of narcotics. Following the verdict, there have been constant efforts to attack and bring down the IT infrastructure of the Maldives Supreme Court, informed sources told The Wire.
The government had sought to buy time by stating that their legal officers were negotiating with the Supreme Court over the judgment as it wasn’t clear. “There is no ground for the prosecutor-general to get advice…That’s why the Supreme Court made it clear on Sunday that basically there was no need for a dialogue as the prosecutor general had to first implement the order first as there was no obstruction in law,” a source said.
The residence of the department of judicial administration’s chief, Hassan Saeed was raided on Sunday morning on a warrant that he had a fake Supreme Court seal to conduct illegal activities.
Allegations were made by the police of transactions by relatives of two Supreme Court justices to buy flats. Sources in the judiciary claimed that these were just “blackmail” methods to pressure the court and strenuously denied any wrong-doing.
Saeed was not arrested as he was not present at his residence. He later managed to reach the premises of the Supreme Court.
Later, the top court annulled the warrant against Saeed issued by the criminal court.
However, the police remained at the parking place in front of the Supreme Court and as employees of the Supreme Court and DJA came out at the end of the day, they were reportedly questioned. The stated reason for the questioning was that it was related to cases of arms and explosives, according to the sources.
Meanwhile, the attorney general also announced at a news conference that there was apparently a move by the Supreme Court to dismiss Yameen.
“We have received information that things might happen that will lead to a national security crisis. The information says the Supreme Court might issue a ruling to impeach or remove the president from power,” Mohamed Anil told reporters.
With the government ratcheting up the pressure, the Supreme Court justices felt the safest place was the premises of the highest court in the land.
India – along with western countries – has forthrightly called on the government to implement the Supreme Court judgment.
However, with the Yameen government unrelenting, sources in the Maldives judiciary and the bar also asserted that India should take stronger measures to force the president to comply with the order.
“It is now up to India to ensure that the government does not get away and implements the Supreme Court order fully,” they said.