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Maldives’ rocky road to transitional justice

On 23 October 2019, a government-endorsed transitional-justice bill was tabled in the Maldivian parliament, the People’s Majlis. The bill, which is currently at the committee stage, purports to redress systematic rights violations and torture in the Maldives. Yet the bill does not meet international standards. If the People’s Majlis passes the bill into legislation in its current form, the Maldives risks depriving hundreds of citizens of their right to reparations for severe human-rights abuses involving state security forces.

In 2018, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was voted in as president and given an overwhelming mandate to address past grievances and begin a process of national healing. A transitional-justice mechanism aligned with the Maldives’ international obligations, and with long-term domestic political stability in mind, should address systematic and widespread attacks on civilians. As Desmond Tutu, the Chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in 2001: “Reconciliation means that those who have been on the underside of history must see there is a qualitative difference between repression and freedom.” But the Maldivian government is now turning a blind eye to repeated calls by the UN’s international human rights mechanisms.

Falling short of international standards

Shortly after the Solih government assumed power, in November 2018, the UN Committee Against Torture reviewed the Maldives for the first time. The Committee applauded the new Maldivian government’s plans to include transitional justice in its legislative agenda. However, it noted that the temporal jurisdiction of the transitional-justice bill, which restricted its scope to between 2012 and 2018, could deprive survivors of historic incidents of torture of remedy, as pre-2012 allegations made before 2012 that have yet to be effectively investigated.

In July 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee called on the Maldivian government to investigate and resolve severe human-rights violations meted out both in Abdul Gayoom-era prisons and during the disputed transfer of power in February 2012, when former President Mohamed Nasheed was forced to resign following protests led by the then opposition and religious hardliners, who claimed that he was responsible for the mismanagement of the economy and religious discord. The concluding observations by the UN mechanism clarified steps that should be taken for redress, calling for the state party to prohibit torture in its legislation and take concrete measures to combat torture and ill-treatment, to set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate rights violations (including torture that took place prior to 2008), and to provide compensation to the victims.

The government is also flouting protections afforded under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the Maldives is a state party.

The ICCPR calls on state parties to ensure that effective legal remedies for rights violations are available to victims, even before the adoption of the landmark international human rights instrument. Survivors who endured torture before the Maldives acceded to the ICCPR are fully entitled to transitional mechanisms that afford them reparations. More specifically, they are entitled to have their allegations determined by competent judicial, administrative or legislative authorities, or by any other competent authority provided for by the legal system of the state. The Maldives, through its ICCPR obligations, is obliged to “develop the possibilities of judicial remedy” where it had not existed previously.

If the People’s Majlis passes the bill into legislation in its current form, the Maldives risks depriving hundreds of citizens of their right to reparations for severe human-rights abuses involving state security forces.

The UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment on the legal obligation imposed on state parties, adopted on 29 March 2004, emphasises the importance of the guarantee of an effective remedy in order to achieve the objectives of Article 2 of the ICCPR. Reparations, in the form of legal or non-legal remedies, are specifically raised as an example of remedying violations, while reinforcing nonrecurrence. “The Committee notes that, where appropriate, reparation can involve restitution, rehabilitation and measures of satisfaction, such as public apologies, public memorials, guarantees of non-repetition and changes in relevant laws and practices, as well as bringing to justice the perpetrators of human rights violations”, reads the UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment no. 31 [80] (paragraph 16). Holding public office or official status at one time or another should not prevent powerful individuals from accepting legal responsibility when implicated in perpetrating atrocities. Turning a blind-eye suggests impunity for internationally-recognised criminal acts, such as torture and enforced disappearances.

There is room to argue that the proposed transitional justice bill is persecutory, in that it is designed to target two former regimes – and specifically, the only two former presidents absent from the current coalition arrangement. The Maldives’ abhorrent torture record also brings the sincerity of the Solih government’s truth and reconciliation mechanism into question. The current coalition government includes Gayoom’s party. However, his presence in the government coalition should not restrict the rights of those seeking reparations; the establishment of truth commissions; and public apologies following the full disclosure of facts.

Healing historical wounds

Is transitional justice possible in a country whose political conflicts have been sporadic, fragmented and difficult to define, unlike in countries like Sri Lanka or South Africa? Is such a process possible when there is doubt about the Maldives’ ability to sustain its current political configuration and uncertainty about how delicate and unpredictable its internal politics could become? But more importantly, can politicians unilaterally decide which period of time citizens suffered most, and is it convincing if it happens to coincide with the period of time when they themselves suffered the most politically?

Holding public office or official status at one time or another should not prevent powerful individuals from accepting legal responsibility when implicated in perpetrating atrocities.

The primary objective of transitional justice mechanisms is to correct past wrongs, not merely for posterity, but to heal historical wounds. Such a programme would put the victims and survivors of past atrocities at the forefront, not the precious sentiments of the political elite. As the Maldivian Democracy Network’s position paper, which was shared with the government in November 2018, states, transitional justice should be “holistic and inclusive”, not an exercise of historical revision. A government that purports to promote open democracy should seek the help of experts in the field to develop its framework; the Maldivian government cannot reduce this opportunity to a political tool for historicising past grievances. It should go without saying that human-rights violators must be held to account in a manner that respects and protects the dignity and security of those affected.

If the Solih government sincerely wishes to mark a transition from fear and violence to an environment more inclined towards peace and security, it would not ratify the act in its current form.

Many attempts at introducing truth and reconciliation programmes to the Maldives in the past were derailed in favour of political expediency, with the country choosing to co-opt dictator-loyalists into the democratic movement instead of upholding due process. A culture of providing reparations for injustice does not exist in the Maldives, and the political elite has no plans to establish the mechanism that all Maldivians deserve. Rather than politicians and their grievances, the most vulnerable sections of Maldivian society – which have persisted in their calls for justice despite the state’s transgressions and neglect – deserve to be an integral part of this critical process.  

Normalising abuse of power

Before the Maldives began efforts to democratise in 2004, state-sanctioned torture and persecution were routine. The understanding was that those in power had a right to abuse that power as well. Foreign observers and reportage on the Maldives can be entirely oblivious to why Maldivian activists use post-conflict language.

Parallel to the power struggles among the political elite concentrated in Male, outer atolls in the North and South have made two significant attempts to resist the oppression of the highly centralised Maldivian government. For decades, successive governments favoured proximity to Male. Infrastructure projects, education and employment were reserved for a privileged few, while the overwhelming majority of the island communities were left out from the Maldives’ development plans.

The resistance in the Northern atolls was a result of famine caused by food shortages during the Second World War. Liberation movements from the South that emerged prior to the 1960s, characterised by most Maldivian historians as “rebellions”, centre around the drafting of an agreement with the British, delimiting Gan as the imperial power’s air base, and diplomatic negotiations that led to the Maldives’ independence from the British protectorate. It must be noted that the Maldives (then the Maldive Islands) and Sri Lanka (formerly British Ceylon) were not part of the British Raj; instead, these two Southasian dependencies were annexed through separate treaties. Maldivian historians also note that the British presence in the islands – both during World War II and the era of decolonisation from European powers – exacerbated these grievances between the centre of power and its periphery in the Maldives.

Is transitional justice possible in a country whose political conflicts have been sporadic, fragmented and difficult to define, unlike in countries like Sri Lanka or South Africa?

The most recent instance of this was in the early 1960s, on Thinadhoo, a southern island. In February 1962, the Ibrahim Nasir government led a special military operation in response to unrest in Thinadhoo. Historically this event is said to have originated with skirmishes between Thinadhoo and neighbouring Gadhdhoo, considered loyal to the central government in the capital Male. Some Thinadhoo natives, however, accuse the Maldivian government of inciting hatred between the two island communities.

The military’s actions resulted in the island community being inundated with violence. Peoples’ valuables and property were eviscerated through brute force. Submachine gunshots were fired, killing several people. After the community was forcibly uprooted, the island was looted and set ablaze by the Maldivian defence force and its ‘volunteers’, more accurately described as regime-aligned militias, according to survivors and their families. To rub salt in their wounds, on 4 February 1962 the government declared Thinadhoo an “uninhabited island” (an official term used in Dhivehi vernacular to refer to islands designated for tertiary activities or tourism development). Hundreds of people from the island were brought to Male and tried for treason, others were murdered, according to historian Ali Moosa Didi’s book Siyasi Cancer (or ‘Political Cancer’). The people of Thinadhoo were then banished to nearby islands. No due process was followed, no redress for the community given; instead, they were forgotten and left to their own devices.

On 28 February 1943, over 500 vessels from northern Maldives’ atolls headed to the capital to demand government action to prevent starvation, a devastating ripple-effect caused by the Second World War. After dialogue with the Maldivian authorities, the resistance was diffused. Didi wrote about the cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment the leadership of the liberation movement was subjected to. “On 29 March 1943, the leaders of the movement in Malé were rounded-up and brought to trial. They were tied up and lynched. Chilli paste was smeared on their (bruised) backs. Following which they were banished to remote islands”, Didi wrote in Siyasi Cancer.

The primary objective of transitional justice mechanisms is to correct past wrongs, not merely for posterity, but to heal historical wounds.

The Maldives’ legacy of state-sanctioned torture survived the second republic, with the tragic extrajudicial killing of the first president of the republic, President Mohamed Amin Didi, in early 1954. President Amin Didi was lynched while restrained in shackles, according to Dhivehi history books. The former president was laid to rest on a nearby island on 19 January 1954.

The Maldivian prison systems were routinely used as torture centres where custodial deaths and disappearances were commonplace. The death of Evan Naseem, a non-political prisoner was seen as a catalyst for the democracy movement that eventually voted-out former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, then internationally known for being Asia’s longest-serving leader. On 19 September 2003, there was an altercation and Naseem was tortured to death at the age of 19, around the same age as three other prisoners who were killed in subsequent unrest the following day. The Gayoom government tried to rush the burial of Naseem to avoid unrest in the capital. His story sent shockwaves through the political system in the country, initially through the sheer effort of Mariyam Manike, Naseem’s grieving mother. Riots erupted in Male and Maafushi prison and government buildings were torched. Prison guards shot and killed three prisoners: Abdulla Ameen, 23; Ahmed Shiyaz, 18; and Ali Aslam, 18. At the same time, 17 other prisoners were injured. The then opposition rightly demanded speedy and tangible democratic reforms.

Sixteen years ago, on 12 August 2004, an extraordinary number of people gathered to call for democratic reform and for the release of political prisoners. The protest caused President Gayoom to declare a state of emergency, during which hundreds of individuals were detained and tortured by the state security forces. Many survivors note the brute force and sexualised nature of the torture inflicted by the state security forces, with their families mentioning child rape and other forms of sexual violence. Again, all alleged acts of treason were pardoned, in line with how the state had handled previous acts of resistance. This seemingly removed any need for reconciliation or justice for the tortured detainees. Again, there was no apology offered nor a platform provided for victims to seek reparations. The day is locally known as the ‘Black Friday’.

Foreign observers and reportage on the Maldives can be entirely oblivious to why Maldivian activists use post-conflict language.

Just as liberation movements from the South were pardoned by the Nasir government after reassuring British officials, in 2005 Gayoom pardoned all those who participated in the 12 August 2004 protest. In doing so, he signalled to the international community that the Maldives intended to embark on democratic reformation. No damages were awarded and there was no apology – the survivors were to be grateful for the Maldivian leadership’s mercy. When persecutory State actions are publicly forgotten, the subsequent wound does not heal.

These events alone demonstrate that open debate and specialised research is required in this area. Historical literature such as Siyasi Cancer by Ali Moosa Didi; Dhekunu Gadubadu (The Unrest in the South) by Ahmed Najeeb; Alhugandu ge Handhaanthah (My Recollections) by Mohamed Naseem; Orchid by Mohamed Jameel; and Rebellion of the Southern Atolls by Naseema Mohamed venture into the Maldives’ politically tumultuous past. A more recent publication, Dhivehiraajje Democracy ah Kuri Dhathuru (The Maldives’ Journey to Democracy) by Mohamed Abdulla Shafeeq, documents the beginnings of the Maldives’ current project of democratisation.

Implementing programmes that amount to ‘selective justice’ goes against the ideals and objectives of truth and reconciliation processes. The Maldivian government and the Parliament should reconsider its current position and involve survivors of torture at every stage of the development of this bill before it becomes a law that could have grave consequences for Maldivian citizens. It is shocking that despite being victims of torture, certain government officials are choosing to bury the past to sustain their political clout, rather than provide justice for the systematically and historically unheard voices of Maldivian society.

 

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