US questions Maldives' commitment to democracy

State Department criticises Indian Ocean archipelago's top court over sacking of poll commissioner just days before scheduled parliamentary election

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 3:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 3:45pm

The United States has criticised the highest court in the Maldives after it sacked the islands’ elections commissioner and gave him a suspended six-month jail term for contempt of court, throwing into doubt a parliamentary election set for this month.

The court also sacked the deputy commissioner, but without a jail term.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement on Monday that the trial of commissioners Fuwad Thowfeek and Ahmed Fayaz was an “unprecedented expansion of judicial powers”.

The verdict has thrown a parliamentary election scheduled for March 22 into jeopardy, with only two members remaining on a five-member Elections Commission. A third member resigned earlier.

The sackings were carried out on Sunday after a months-long conflict between the judiciary and the Elections Commission over the Supreme Court’s conduct in last year’s presidential election in which Yameen Abdul Gayoom, a brother of the Indian Ocean archipelago’s former autocratic ruler, was elected. The jail term for Thowfeek was suspended for three years.

These actions represent an unprecedented expansion of judicial powers
Jen Psaki, US State Department spokeswoman

Psaki’s statement said: “These actions represent an unprecedented expansion of judicial powers, which undermines an independent democratic institution that had made laudable efforts to hold multiple, successful elections despite previous judicial interference.”

It said the Supreme Court’s insistence on holding the election as scheduled on March 22, after having sacked the official responsible for holding it, calls “into serious question the government’s commitment to democracy”.

Tension between the judiciary and the Elections Commission arose after Thowfeek spoke out against controversial judgments by the Supreme Court pertaining to last November’s presidential election run-off.

Gayoom – the brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the island nation for 30 years – won a narrow victory over Mohamed Nasheed, who led the struggle for democracy and was elected president in 2008 in the country’s first multiparty election.

The results of a first-round presidential election on September 7 were annulled by the Supreme Court after another candidate complained that the voters’ register contained made-up names and those of dead people.

A widespread outcry erupted because local and international monitors found the election to be free and fair.

Nasheed led that vote, but fell short of the 50 per cent needed for an outright win. Police acting under a court order stopped a subsequent revote, and the delay gave Nasheed’s opponents enough time to form a coalition and defeat him narrowly in a third attempt to hold the election.