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FOCUS March 2007 Volume 47

The National Human Rights Commission - The Maldives

Shahindha Ismail*

* Shahindha Ismail works for the Maldivian Detainee Network.

The first National Human Rights Institution in the Maldives was established on 10 December 2003 following the custodial deaths of five prisoners and the consequent outburst of public frustration. A large number of people went out on the streets of the capital Male' on 20 September 2003 to protest the custodial deaths, which eventually led to stone throwing on some government buildings and the burning of the High Court premises.

Establishing the Human Rights Commission

A special decree issued by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 2003 established the first Human Rights Commission (Commission) of the Maldives. Under this decree, the Commission has "the right to charge and receive charges/allegations."[1] The President subsequently appointed the nine Members of the newly-established Commission.

By February 2004, a bill was filed before the People's Majlis (Parliament) to become the law creating the Commission. The bill was passed in 2005 as the Human Rights Commission Act (Law No. 1/2005). But the appointment of the members of the Commission was not completed due to questions about the law's compliance with the Paris Principles. Thus the new law had to be amended.

In mid-2006 the Parliament passed a law (Law No: 1/2006)[2] amending the Human Rights Commission Act of 2005.

The 2006 law provides that the Human Rights Commission has the power to inquire on cases that occurred subsequent to the enactment of the law, and cases that occurred prior to the enactment of the law but not before 1 January 2000 (with exception).[3] Such cases may involve government officials or private persons. In undertaking investigation, the Commission has the power to summon witnesses and persons related to complaints filed and obtain their statements; instruct persons being questioned in an ongoing inquiry not to leave Maldives except upon its permission, among others.

The Commission, after investigation, may seek amicable settlement of cases, or refer them to courts if no amicable settlement is possible, or send a report of the inquiry on the cases with recommendations to appropriate government agencies.

The new law provides that it is the duty of Maldivian citizens and persons within the jurisdiction of the Maldives to obey the summons issued by the Commission, provide information or submit documents as well as to act or refrain from doing any act as may be required by the Commission. Failure to follow the orders of the Commission may either result in house arrest or dismissal from office in case of public officials.

The Commission also has the power to inspect without prior notice any premises where persons are detained under a judicial decision or a court order.

The 2006 law provides for a Commission with five-members, who are appointed by the People's Majlis (Parliament) based on a list of nominees submitted by the President. In October 2006, the Parliament confirmed the Members of the new Human Rights Commission of the Maldives. In November 2006, it confirmed Mr. Ahmed Saleem as the Chair of the Commission.

It also requires the state treasury to provide the Commission with funds, from the annual budget approved by the People's Majlis, "essential to undertake the responsibilities of the Commission."

Responding to complaints

Following its formation, the first Commission received a number of complaints of human rights violations. However, the general view was that nothing came out of the complaints. Many people claimed that letters to the Commission were never answered.

The case of the detention of protesters in 2004 indicates how far the Commission would go. In August 2004 the police severely beat and arrested over three hundred protesters having a peaceful gathering at the Republic Square in Male'. Among the victims of police brutality were children and women. Some people were in critical medical condition due to the beating.

Those arrested were detained without charge, and without proper medical assistance, in cells on another island where the detention facility was located. Although a few detainees were released within days, many supporters and activists of the political Opposition, including members of the Parliament, were detained for up to five months.

During the more than five months of detention of the protesters, the Commission did not issue any statement regarding the August 2004 incident. However, representatives of the Commission visited the detention facility and met with a number of detainees. No statement or publication followed this visit. Many families were denied access to the detainees and waited desperately for news about their dear ones in detention.

Complaints filed with the Commission by many family members on police brutality to their kin did not receive a reply.

Upon release, many of the detainees filed complaints with the Commission with regard to police brutality and torture. Many of them claimed they did not hear anything from the Commission about their complaints.

Based on the 2003 Presidential Decree, which empowers the Commission to hold independent public enquiry, the Commission decided to hold a public enquiry on the August 2004 protests and arrests. The Commission decided that, since such an enquiry was to be held in the Maldives for the first time, they would consult experts in the field. But on 4 November 2004 the Commission received a letter from the President's Office stating that it could not yet conduct a public enquiry for lack of legal framework to do so since the relevant laws were not yet passed by the Parliament. As a result, the Commission cancelled its planned public enquiry.

The official website of the Commission states that it sent reports and recommendations on prisons and detention facilities to President Gayoom following their visits to these facilities. The website also states that the President's Office merely replied that it sent the recommendations to the Ministry of Home Affairs. [4]

Problems encountered

During its first year of existence, the first Commission was obstructed from finalizing its first annual report and stopped from holding a meeting in 2004 on the International Human Rights Day.

The Chair of the first Commission resigned in less than two years out of a five-year term, followed by more resignations until two Commissioners were left. The Commission was literally defunct by this time and could not carry out any of the activities on their mandate due to lack of capacity to do so.

The Maldivian Detainee Network (Network) met with the remaining two Members of the Commission in September 2006 and inquired about its prison and detention facility visitation function. The Network asked whether or not the Commission could engage the Network staff to assist in the visitations in view of its (Commission's) lack of human resources. The Network also explained the importance of these visits by a non-governmental organization (NGO) in order to verify maltreatment reports sent by families of detainees and the detainees themselves. The Members replied that since the first Commission was at a "stand still" situation they had to wait until a full Commission was again established before taking action on the issue.

With the new Commission, the Network requested in January 2007 the present Chair of the Commission, Mr. Ahmed Saleem, to allow the representatives of the Network to join prison and detention facility visits by the NHRC Maldives. The Network has not yet received a response to the request.

Some issues

It is noteworthy that out of over forty individuals who expressed interest on the government's open invitation to apply to become members of the Commission, President Gayoom proposed five names for confirmation to the Parliament. The law allows more than five nominees to be considered for appointment to the Commission if the President wishes to do so. And then out of the five nominees, only two subsequently expressed willingness to serve in the Commission.

All nominees, except Mr. Ahmed Saleem, are known for their quiet disposition and for not being critical of the government. It remains to be seen whether or not they will maintain strong objectivity during their term.

Some of the present Members were members of the ruling party (Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party) at the time they were appointed to the Commission. Hence, with due respect to these Members, the sincerity of the Commission's work remains in doubt.

Although there was never any negative aspect to it, there has been extremely little or no cooperation between the Commission and local NGOs from the time the first human rights commission came into being in the Maldives. Representatives of two local human rights NGOs met with a Commission Member in January 2007 and exchanged views on possible cooperation and joint efforts between the existing informal civil society network in the Maldives and the Commission. But the Commission did not initiate any further meetings or convey any indication of possible work with the existing informal civil society.

A major issue that recently arose was the government proposal for the amendment of the Human Rights Commission Act of 2006 that subjects to dismissal from employment any government official who withholds or distorts information requested by the Commission. The government proposed that the law be changed from terminating the employment of such individuals to simply punishing them with a fine.

This amendment was formally adopted into law after much debate, with Member of Parliament Mr. Ibrahim Ismail opposing it. He argued that, "the main reason we fought so hard to have the law [Human Rights Commission Act of 2006] endorsed in the first place was to prevent people in authority to hide information from the National Human Rights Commission and human rights NGOs". He said that he could not find a justifiable reason for the government desire to amend the law other than to hide information from the National Human Rights Commission. Mr. Ismail has raised many human rights violations issues in Parliament, and continues to propose laws on human rights.

The future and the success of the present Human Rights Commission of the Maldives remains to be seen. It is up to it to show results. Public confidence and trust do not come by default. It has to be obtained, before it gets too late.

For further information, please visit the website of Maldivian Detainee Network: www.maldiviandetainees.net

Endnotes

1. See UNDP, Support to the Human Rights Commission of Maldives Project Document (Male: UNDP, 2004) page 3.

2. The complete text of the law is available in this webpage: http://www.hrcm.org.mv/downloads/HRCM Act English translation.pdf

3. Under paragraph c of Article 33, Human Rights Commission Act of 2006, the Commission is not restricted from inquiring on a complaint involving events that occurred prior to 1 January 2000, or on events that occurred after the law was enacted but more than one-year having lapsed before the filing of the complaint, if it "deems such as a complaint is necessary to be investigated based on its nature and severity."

4. See www.hrcm.org.mv


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