Parliament Updates: Political Developments Surrounding the Work of the Parliament in 2014

This report looks at the political developments surrounding the work of the Parliament in 2014, and highlights the contested nature of legislation during the period. The report addresses some noteworthy bills, key institutional appointments and dismissals, and issues surrounding urgent national issues submitted to Parliament.

Key legislation
The lack of bipartisan support on crucial governmental legislation was a recurring theme in parliamentary proceedings in 2014. In some cases support for government-sponsored legislation was tied to the political dynamics prevailing at the time. For example, at the start of the year, the government’s budget was passed with broad support from then-coalition partners the PPM and JP, while MDP’s amendments to the budget were dismissed. In others, as in the case of appointments to key institutions, the failure of political parties to whip votes along party lines led to inconsistent stances on various issues across all major parties.

This in turn adds to the precariousness of democratic consolidation where opposition members allege the Executive branch’s encroachment on the principle of separation of powers and eroding constitutional maxims. On the other hand, the government, including the current Attorney General, in an interview to DhiTV news on 25 February 2015, has categorically denied any undermining of the Constitution.

1. Special Economic Zone Act
The enactment of the Special Economic Zones Act (SEZ) in August 2014 highlighted one of the flagship economic drivers indicated in the new government’s budget. Our January parliamentary update summarizes the developments surrounding the passage of the bill in Parliament. The JP switching from its initial ambivalence to fully supporting the bill’s passage prompted opposition media to suggest that the government’s impeding of Gasim’s business interests lead to the change. Since its passing, the government has stated that it is reforming existing bureaucratic hurdles to incorporate the provisions in the SEZ Act; and government representatives have given media interviews, albeit without specificity, on potential mega-investments following-from the Act. Other than a few news articles such as the one by former MDP administration Minister Inaz in Haveeru newspaper, a point of note is the lack of public commentary on the socio-economic impacts of the Act by accredited independent sources such as civil society.

While the government has forecasted it would receive about 100 million US dollars as acquisition fees for the SEZs by August this year, the opposition has criticised the lack of significant foreign investments. Since then, the “Investment Board”(1) for the SEZs has been formulated by the President and in September 2014, the government assigned South Kulhudhuffushi MP Mohamed Nasheed, whose law firm(2) drafted the SEZ bill to outline additional regulations required by the Act.

The government may very well undertake to smoothly pass complementary regulation with its majority in Parliament, however, what is abundantly clear is that political consensus and cross-party support will be crucial to ensure an unhindered implementation programme. Attracting foreign investments under the Act is further complicated as it is closely tied to existing domestic political dynamics and fallout from political incidents(3) such as rights violations and suppression of dissent.

2. Penal code
The amended penal code will come into effect on 13 April 2015, and the Attorney General’s Office is carrying out training programmes and establishing resource office for stakeholders to improve competence in dealing with the new provisions in the code.

Whilst the government is seen to be speeding-up preparations for the advent of the new code, the opposition MDP has accused the government of “rushing the proceedings in order to convict former President Nasheed before the new penal code comes into effect in April” and has called on the Prosecutor General (PG) to cease his case against Nasheed. The PG has since withdrawn these charges, and has attempted to re-prosecute Nasheed, and others in his administration, under the 1990 Prevention of Terrorism Act. Nasheed was arrested by the Police on 22 February 2015 and his case is ongoing at the time of writing.

3. Amendment to eligible age for seeking presidential elections
The constitutional amendment submitted by the Maldives Development Alliance (MDA)—ruling party coalition partner—on 24 December 2014, which proposed to amend the eligible age for contesting in presidential elections to below 65 years faced widespread criticism from the opposition. The opposition, which included the JP after the dissolution of the coalition agreement with the ruling PPM, contended that the amendment was intended to bar JP leader Qasim Ibrahim from contesting. The legality of the amendment was questioned by prominent legal experts, including former Attorney General Husnu Al Suood, as being unconstitutional. Our October-December 2014 parliamentary update highlights issues surrounding this amendment.

The amendment was withdrawn on 3 March 2015 amidst media reports of a meeting between Gasim Ibrahim, prominent businessman Mohamed Moosa, and Tourism Minister Adeeb to discuss the current political situation and negotiate the withdrawal of this amendment.

Appointments and removal of members of key institutions

1.Removal of Elections Commission (EC) members
In February 2014, the Supreme Court (SC) initiated a contempt of court charge under its new “Suo Motu” regulation against EC members stating they violated the Court’s rulings on dissolving political parties(4). While there are problems associated with the “Suo Motu” regulation itself, the procedures undertaken in this instance against the Commission members heralded irregularities in the filing of charges and hearings. In March 2014, the Court ruled to remove the Elections Commission President Fuwad Thowfeek and Vice President Ahmed Fayaz Hassan and decreed Thowfeek serve a suspended prison sentence of six months.

Opposition parties and international civil society organizations have questioned the legitimacy of these expulsions as it was contrary to provisions on dismissal of EC members under the Constitution. This ruling also emphasizes the larger implications of the SC’s interpretations of contempt of court includes violating basic rights, principles of separation of powers and infringes on the autonomy of independent commissions. Building on the experience of the 2013 Presidential election where the independence of the EC was a dominant issue, there exists the possibility of negative impacts on future electoral environments.

2. Removal of Auditor-General
The government has continued in this trend of undermining the autonomy of independent, oversight institutions and in October 2014, the PPM proposed an amendment to the Audit Act, and removed the Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim on a technical triviality, before the expiration of the constitutionally mandated term of his office. The amendment is problematic in that it bypasses existing provisions in the Constitution that clearly prescribe the sole grounds for removal of the Auditor General – misconduct, incapacity or incompetence. It must also be noted that the passing of the amendment and the consequent removal of the Auditor General coincided with the release of an incriminating audit report implicating the current Tourism Minister. The opposition MDP protested the amendment as unconstitutional, nevertheless, it passed with 36 votes in favour and 22 against.

Ibrahim’s appointment as Auditor General was approved by Parliament in 2011 as President Nasheed’s nominee. During his tenure, Ibrahim presided over a spate of audit assessments into allegations of corruption under President Nasheed’s presidency, that were widely welcomed by the PPM at the time, as well as appraisals on corruption in the term of the current administration.

3. Removal of SC judges
In December 2014, a controversial amendment was submitted by an MDP MP to the Judicature Act to reduce the number of SC judges from seven to five. Following the amendment to the Act on 10 December 2014, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) recommended the removal of Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz Hussain and Justice Muthasim Adnan citing “gross misconduct” as basis. This decision by the JSC to remove these judges without publicising the criteria against which they were evaluated raised questions about the transparency and fairness of the process.

On 15 December 2014, the Parliament approved the JSC’s recommendation by a two-thirds majority with 53 votes in favour and 21 against. Six of the JP members voted in favour as well as MDP MP Reeko Moosa Manik. Some MDP members did not attend the parliament session and allegations that opposition MDP MPs were offered bribes to stay out of the session ensured. The MDP has even followed-up with disciplinary proceedings against some MPs, including the expulsion of Manik.

This contentious removal of SC judges severely undermines the independence and integrity of the judiciary and exacerbates the allegations of political interference with the judicial system. The removal of both judges were heavily criticized by the opposition MDP, independent lawyers, the international community – including the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, and civil society groups. These actors highlighted the fact that upholding judicial integrity requires a concerted effort to reform the broader aspects of the judicial sector, especially the oversight mechanisms in place such as the JSC.

‘Kulli massalathah’ or national issues

1. Malé water crisis
A few “kulli massala” or urgent national issue cases were submitted to the Parliament in 2014. One of the most critical was following the Malé city water crisis, submitted by PPM. It called on the state to fully investigate of the causes of the crisis, and to undertake expedient efforts to solve the water shortage.

The crisis started with a fire at Malé’s only water purification plant, cutting off supply to every household. The government immediately formed a taskforce, headed by then Defence Minister Nazim. Drinking water supplies were quickly airlifted into Maldives by India and other friendly states including China and the US, somewhat alleviating the immediate crisis. Political rhetoric was brought into furore when the government’s response in the aftermath of the crisis was to ask for public donations of US$ 20 million to help fully normalize the situation.

The opposition MDP and civil society groups countered stating the lack of detailed information on the part of government authorities on the investigation into the issue, the arbitrary nature of the aid amount as well as need for soliciting aid from the public citing the government-owned Malé Water and Sewerage Company’s apparent lack of contingency plans. In the midst of the crisis, the MDP also passed a resolution to handover the presidency to JP leader Gasim Ibrahim, in an act largely viewed as an attempt to destabilise the government. Civil society groups responded to the resolution alluding that it inferred overruling constitutional electoral processes and called on all political parties to operate within the boundaries set in the Constitution.

2. Disappearance of journalist Rilwan
In August 2014, Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, a journalist working for local newspaper Minivan News, disappeared and was allegedly abducted, and has been missing since. While the Maldives Police Service maintain they are investigating the disappearance, they have not been forthcoming with information or updates to either the public or Abdulla’s family. His family have since taken up a public campaign calling for state authorities to expedite the search and investigation efforts. The opposition and some civil society organizations have alleged state involvement invoking Abdulla’s prominence as a strong critic of the government on social media.

The Human Rights Commission has stated that state authorities are dragging their feet to address this matter and local and international actors have echoed similar concerns. A local NGO has, with the help of a UK-based investigator, undertaken an investigation into Abdulla’s disappearance, alleging involvement of gangs and have shared these findings with the police. The Home Minister has since acknowledged gang connections to the incident, but denied any state involvement in Abdulla’s disappearance and responded that the opposition were hindering investigations with such speculation.

The initial “kulli massala” issue submitted by MDP MP Imthiyaz Fahmy on Abdulla’s disappearance was accepted with bipartisan support on 19 August, eleven days after his alleged abduction. Since then, a 5,055 signature petition calling on parliamentary committees to investigate the disappearance and address police laxity in conducting the investigation was rejected by the Parliament. The Parliament’s Secretary-General stated the petition was rejected on an administrative technicality, which was contended by Fahmy, who argued he fulfilled all submission procedures.

1. Chaired by current Tourism Minister Adeeb. Board members are not reimbursed for their service, and thus, as claimed by the government, the appointments are not in contravention to restrictions placed on cabinet ministers in the Maldives Constitution, or the SEZ Act itself. The Constitution restricts members of the Cabinet from holding any other public office or office of profit, actively engage in a business or in the practice of any profession, or any other income generating employment, be employed by any person, buy or lease any property belonging to the State, or have a financial interest in any transaction between the State and another party. The government stated that the Board would not gain any financial profit, and would only act in the capacity of a governing body.
2. The current Attorney General is MP Nasheed’s partner at his law firm, “Nasheed Anil & Co.”
3.  Including the ongoing trial of former President Nasheed.

4. The procedure regarding the filing of charges and subsequent hearings were irregular:

– The Elections Commission did not receive a formal charge sheet until the defense team attended the SC for the second hearing on 18 February.
– The case was presided over by 5 out the 7 SC Justices. The Suo Motu Regulations specify that cases under it should be presided over by the full bench unless decided otherwise by the SC.
– The SC had not provided to the defense team the specific statements that allegedly involved contempt. The SC also had not clarified the exact manner EC violated SC’s ruling and order on political parties. In addition, the SC brought up charges on alleged violation of orders and ruling during the Presidential Elections.