Gayoom’s Candidacy Challenged In Supreme Court in the Maldives
By Judith Evans in Malé September 24, 2008
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s bid to stand for a seventh term in office was challenged on Wednesday at the country’s highest judicial authority, the new and independent Supreme Court.
The case, brought by the Social Liberal Party against the Elections Commission, was just the second case to be considered by the court in its first week of existence. Under the previous constitution, the President himself headed the judiciary.
At the first hearing of the case, the Liberal Party contended Gayoom had already exceeded the two-term limit set in the constitution ratified on 7 August.
The Elections Commission, which took Gayoom’s side on the issue after three of five commissioners supported his re-election bid, counter-argued the constitution represents a clean slate.
All five judges of the new Supreme Court were present at the crowded hearing in Muleeage, the former presidential palace building in the capital, Malé.
The Liberal Party, represented by Ahmed Abdullah Afeef, sought to overturn the Elections Commission’s ruling this week that Gayoom is eligible to stand in the upcoming multi-party elections on 8 October.
Afeef argued the constitution, as referred to within the document itself, represented “all constitutions of the Maldives” – so the two-term limit now imposed also applied retrospectively.
In Gayoom’s initial letter to the Special Majlis (constitutional assembly), they said, he had introduced the idea of a two-term limit and also charged them with “amending” the constitution, rather than writing it anew.
“If everything is new under this constitution, then all marriages under the old one are void, all crimes are void,” said Liberal Party presidential candidate Ibrahim Ismail (Ibra), also representing the party. “A new constitution will come only after a revolution.”
The Liberals also cited clause 69 of the document, which states, “No provision of the Constitution shall be interpreted in a manner that would grant...the right to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of the rights and freedoms set out in this Constitution.” This must be borne in mind when interpreting the two-term limit, they said.
Shaheen Hameed, representing the Elections Commission, argued the constitution was “new”.
In over 40 articles, he said, the constitution refers to itself as “this constitution” meaning past constitutions are void.
Clause 293(b), noted Hameed, specifies that “upon the commencement of this Constitution, the ‘Constitution of the Republic of the Maldives’ which came into force on 1 January 1998 shall be repealed.”
And institutions mandated in the constitution, such as the Supreme Court itself, are also new.
Therefore, Hameed argued, the document acts as a clean slate, under which Gayoom can stand again.
Clause 107, which sets the two-term limit, specifically says no President elected “pursuant to this constitution” may serve more than two terms, whilst the transitional chapter states the upcoming presidential elections will be the first held under this constitution, the Elections Commission argued.
Gayoom was represented as a third party by lawyer Mohamed Fizan.
A second hearing is due on 25 September, at which a verdict may be reached.
The Islamic Democratic Party (IDP) and religious conservative Adhaalath Party have also said they back the Liberal Party’s case.
The Adhaalath had originally planned to bring its own case, but spokesperson Mohamed Shaheem Ali Said told Minivan News, “The Liberal Party has taken it, so we decided not to.”
They will instead focus on a case using Gayoom’s past statements as evidence he is not a Sunni Muslim, another condition for the presidency.
When the two-term limit was voted in on 15 January, the largest opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) also argued Gayoom’s candidacy was ruled out.
But it since appears to have changed its approach. At a 9 September press briefing, party presidential candidate Mohamed Nasheed (Anni) said, “If the man doesn’t have the decency to leave, let the people decide.”
The Supreme Court must rule on all cases challenging candidacies in time for the Elections Commission to make a final announcement of candidates on 29 September.
The court was voted in on 18 September, the last possible date to meet the 21 September deadline in the constitution for a Supreme Court to come into being.
But opposition MPs walked out in protest at a lack of information on the nominees, whilst legal reform minister Mohamed Nasheed expressed “disappointment” that no candidate had any formal background in common law, calling it a “great loss for the institution on its formative years.”
Human rights lawyer Husnu Suood said it was a “sad day for justice in the Maldives,” slating opposition MPs for not attempting to block the nominations by ensuring a full house so that the government’s Dhivehi Raiyyithunge Party (DRP) would not have a two-thirds majority.
The court has yet to hand down its first verdict.