Originally Published 2015-04-08 00:00:00 Published on Apr 08, 2015
While it may be inconceivable in the Third World democratic context that the Bill that restricts political rights of Nasheed was moved and passed without the President's consent, Yameen has now returned the Bill to Parliament.
Maldives: Yameen 'returns' Bill barring politics for Nasheed

Making a further point over the 'division of powers', or bowing to 'international pressure' or otherwise, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen has returned to Parliament the prisoner-membership Bill denying political party membership to prisoners. Almost simultaneously, the Government has also cleared another jailed politician, Col Mohamed Nazim, for travelling overseas for medical care for a life-threatening ailment.

One more of the fast-tracked pieces of legislation over the past months, the Bill, if cleared, would have denied former President and Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Mohammed 'Anni' Nasheed any political role, after his 13-year imprisonment had disqualified him from contesting future elections for a long time to come. Nasheed having taken future possibilities to his party cadres even before his arrest by asking them publicly to retain him as their party leader and presidential candidate, barring him from political activity could have also weakened - and at times even fractured - what is essentially a self-styled, democracy-centric 'umbrella organisation'.

Parliament passed the Bill, moved by a member of the ruling combine, led by President Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), amidst continuing Opposition boycott of official business and non-stop shrill protests by MDP members inside the House and outside. While it may be inconceivable in the Third World democratic context that the Bill was moved and passed without the President's knowledge and consent, Yameen, a week later, has reportedly cited Attorney-General Mohamed Anil to hold that the legislative measure did not meet with democratic standards the world over. The AG is also reported to have written to the People's Majlis, saying the Bill put constraints on basic rights more than should be allowed within a democratic society.

Lawyers' team for lobbying

In between, President Nasheed has put together a team of international lawyers to present his case to the global community. The team is meant mainly to lobby Nasheed's case in UN fora and elsewhere, and not meant for arguing and/or building his defence before appellate courts in Maldives. In a statement, Nasheed has profusely thanked the team members, and said that they would work towards taking up his case - and also what MDP calls as President Yameen's authoritarian regime - to the international community and fora.

In the past, Nasheed and the MDP had used international legal teams for the twin purposes, but not this time round, it would seem. In context, Nasheed's defence team nearer home had originally complained against lack of time for preparing the appeal papers. After the High Court clarified they could take more time beyond the Supreme Court-amended 10-day upper-limit in January, they have now gone back to contesting the credibility of the nation's judiciary at all levels. It's anybody's guess why the Nasheed's legal defence is keen on keeping the issue political and international, without wanting to argue the appeal in the local courts.

By returning an 'anti-Nasheed' Bill to Parliament now, President Yameen might have proved his detractors wrong, though only up to a very limited extent. Ever since Nasheed was arrested under an anti-terror law of 1989 vintage, Yameen and his Government have been maintaining that as a respecter of 'separation of powers', the President could not be expected to interfere with the judicial process.

The MDP continued to maintain that it was all a political issue and not a 'legal case', hence presidential clemency/pardon was the only way out for Nasheed (and by extension, the nation as a whole). Though nothing seemed to have moved after Nasheed's defence decided to forego the appeals option, President Yameen's returning the prisoner-membership Bill to Parliament augurs well for political reconciliation efforts of whatever kind is possible yet.

Respect SC: Speaker

Coinciding with the presidential decision or otherwise, the MDP too has decided to stop their shouting-campaign until Parliament Speaker Abdulla Maseeh had decided on their request for an appointment to discuss their demands, centred on President Nasheed's imprisonment. Following this, Parliament functioned properly for the first time since the year's sessions commenced with the customary presidential address in early March.

At a breakfast meeting with media persons earlier, the Speaker pointed to every stake-holder in older and larger democracies across the world respecting the Supreme Court in their countries. He also made the point that even larger and older democracies had their flaws, and were working on rectification processes all the time. He seemed to imply that Maldives too was doing so, and should not be singled out for global criticism, based on individual/individualist episode and specific issues.

Before the current moves, and ahead of the party-inspired street-protests 'in defence of democracy' since December/January, the party had formed a negotiations team with fellow-Opposition Jumhooree Party (JP) of tycoon- philanthropist Gasim Ibrahim. Home Minister Umar Naseer was the only one to meet them after the 'Judge Abdulla abduction case' against President Nasheed went to trial, and pleaded helplessness in the matter.

On the 'defence of democracy' demands of the combined Opposition, President Yameen declared that they should either go to the Legislature or the Judiciary, as their issues, in his view, had little to do with the Executive authority of the President. On Nasheed's arrest, trial and fast-tracked conviction and sentencing later, he said that there was little that the President could (and should) do when the matter was in the hands of the Judiciary.

Agitating legal issues?

Judge Abdulla's detention and President Nasheed's knowledge of it being facts, it's still anybody's guess why Nasheed's defence does not want to agitate the legal issues in domestic courts, where alone the matter now rests. The overnight conversion of a criminal offence into an 'act of terrorism' without clear definition or explanation would require judicious reasons for the higher judiciary to uphold in a 'democracy', which President Yameen and his Government says, Maldives under him still is.

Should the PPM-controlled People's Majlis, or Parliament, 'defy' President Yameen and re-enact the law, with or without amendments, he would then have no choice but to give his assent, and notify it as law. It would then again be left to the higher judiciary to test the constitutional validity of the measure, and for the nation to test the genuineness of President Yameen's democratic Executive prerogative to 'return' the Bill to Parliament in the first place.

Pending domestic developments, about which not much is known outside, the international community's (read: West) reaction to Nasheed's arrest has been muted, periodic and customary. Three weeks into his imprisonment, there does not seem to be any coordinated strategy, whether aimed at ensuring his freedom and/or restoring his electoral rights (which would be unavailable to him if let out under a presidential pardon).

It may be because of a variety of factors. Prima facie, President Nasheed and the MDP seemed to have been in too much of a hurry to effect a 'regime change' by fast-tracking 'democratic transition' in Maldives, when no elections were due - and through street-protests. Two, unlike his predecessors, including half-brother and former President Maumoon Gayoom, the incumbent seems to have proved to be a match for Nasheed's tactical ingenuity - at least up to now.

Sovereignty issues

As if to put his external detractors, particularly State players, on the defensive, President Yameen and his niece and Foreign Minister Dunya Mumoon have been repeatedly raising 'sovereignty' issues viz the international community. Ever since the Nasheed case came up, they have been telling third nations, neither to get involved with Maldivian affairs or comment on them, in what they say was a partisan way without knowing ground rules and realities.

It is also not unlikely that nations and governments might have become touchy and cautious over Nasheed's unpredictability over the past years, learning as might have from the 'Indian experience'. Defying court summons in 2013 in the very same 'Judge Abdulla abduction case' - then only a criminal offence, and not a 'terror act' - Nasheed, as a former Head of State, staged an unexpected stay-in in the Indian High Commission, Male. Anticipating arrest this time round, he publicly and repeatedly called upon India to 'protect him'.

If all these were enough for any host government to become suspicious -- and other nations to become cautious, the Maldivian Judiciary might have since made others sit up and take notice. The three-Judge trial court that sentenced Nasheed to 13 years in prison also ordered 11 year-jail term for President Yameen's ex-Defence Minister and one-time political colleague, Col Mohamed Nazim (retd), for 'possessing illegal weapons' while in power. Nazim's defence has claimed that the case was 'foisted' and is likely to appeal.

But in a rumoured turn of events since President Yameen returning Nasheed-related Bill to Parliament, the Government has authorised Col Nazim to travel overseas for medical treatment for a potentially life-threatening condition. "He will be allowed to leave the country for a set period of time," Minivan News reported, quoting a media official from the Maldives Correctional Service. The jailed politician's family said they had not yet been told about his permission to leave, Minivan News reported at the time of going to press.

'Silencing dissent'

In between, the Supreme Court seemed to have redeemed some of the prestige, if at all, for the nation's Judiciary after the conviction and sentencing of Ahmed Nazim, an incumbent PPM parliamentarian and one-time aide of President Yameen, to 25 years in prison in a 'corruption case'. Without commenting specifically on this case, detractors of President Yameen however see in all these an effort to 'silence dissent' of every kind.

The 'Independent' constitutionally-mandated Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has near-simultaneously asked the AG's office to include 'illicit enrichment' a criminal offence under the new penal code. These come at a time when the international community is concerned about political and administrative corruption -- if not as much about democracy. Whether anyone outside the country - or, inside - is going to switch one issue for another, or substitute progress on one front with reported regression on the other is anybody's guess.

There is otherwise no knowing how far would the MDP be able to sustain the pressure on the Yameen leadership, from within and outside, on the Nasheed issue. Be it in 2012, when the 'Abdulla abduction case' was first flagged, nor now, there are enough aspirants for the party leadership - and by extension the national leadership - and President Nasheed may not be unaware of them and their machinations.

President Yameen's present initiative of returning the Bill has the potential to keep the nation's leadership fight still between the two of them, with supporters of Nasheed hoping that international intervention would still help him get back his freedom and electoral rights, thus helping him to contest the 2018 presidential polls. That may not be asking for more, from their perspective - but it would still be asking for time, to begin with.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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