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Maldives High Court declares Thimarafushi parliamentary vote invalid; orders fresh vote

In a landmark case, Ghassan Maumoon, the Dhivehi Raiyyithunge Party candidate for Thaa Thimarafushi, has successfully won an appeal to invalidate the Thimarafushi parliamentary vote. On June 11, the Maldives High Court declared that the parliamentary elections in Thimarafushi had not taken place in a free and fair environment. It found that several conditions of voting in Thimarafushi were in direct violation of the law, and that voting in Thimarafushi had taken place in a climate of terror and intimidation. The court ordered the Maldives Elections Commission to take a fresh vote for both ballot boxes in the constituency. Ghassan Maumoon’s appeal stated that, voting on Thimarafushi island took place under intimidation, threat and violence by supporters of Maldivian Democratic Party candidate, Thimarafushi Musthafa.

The High Court ordered the EC to ensure within 20 days that the island had a peaceful environment within which free and fair elections could be held as under Article 70 of the Maldives Constitution. It further ordered the EC to take a fresh vote within 30 days from the date of the court order. It also ordered the Maldives Security Forces, the police and the army, to assist the EC should it request assistance. The High Court ordered that the fresh vote should be taken under the observation and monitoring of the Maldives Human Rights Commission and international observers.

The decision by the High Court invalidates the EC’s decision that the MDP candidate Thimarafushi Musthafa had won the Thimarafushi seat. In the provisional results announced by the Commission for Thimarafushi, MDP candidate Musthafa lead DRP candidate Ghassan Maumoon by about 100 votes. It had required a High Court stay order to bar the EC from announcing this result. Although mountains of evidence were presented to the contrary, Deputy Commissioner of the EC Hussain Siraj has continued to adamantly contest Ghassan Maumoon’s case, asserting that no irregularities had taken place on that day, and that the vote and vote results were valid. Hussain Siraj is one of the lead lawyers of President Mohamed Nasheed’s MDP.

However, in delivering the court decision the High Court Judge Ali Hameed declared that evidence from the reports and depositions of the Maldives Human Rights Comission, the review panel of the Elections Commission, independent elections monitor Transparency Maldives and the IDP clearly showed that voting on Thimarafushi did not take place in a peaceful environment, but one which the rule of law was repeatedly violated. Evidence cited by the court included elderly being forced to vote, arson attack on a vessel belonging to a Ghassan Maumoon supporter, vandalism of Ghasssan Maumoon’s campaign office on the island, and actions by the Maldives Democratic Party to influence voters.

Concrete evidence was presented that the MDP candidate Musthafa’s supporters hijacked the ballot boxes twice during the voting process by rushing the voting area and forcing elections officials and Ghassan’s observers out of the area. After a lengthy delay during which the ballot box was in the hands of Musthafa’s supporters, ballot counting proceeded under police supervision. Ghassan’s observers were also prevented from attending the ballot counting. In addition, when the ballot box was sealed after counting, some ballots had been left outside the box. Other reports also validate those elections officials responsible for the election administration in the constituency refused to accept the Thimarafushi ballot box because the seal was broken when it reached them.

The High Court decision on Thimarafushi today brings into the foreground several other cases in which candidates have challenged that voting in their constituencies took place in violation of the law. These include the case of independent candidate Ahmed Shareef in the Lhaviyani Hinnavaru parliamentary vote, and that of Marz Saleem, DRP candidate for Hulhuhenveryru. In both cases, several violations of the law such as double voting, voting by minors, fear and intimidation of citizens and campaigning on voting day by the MDP candidate have been cited.

The High Court verdict of June 11th went against Maldives President Nasheed’s top financier, Thimarafushi Musthafa. Musthafa, a close friend and ally of President Nasheed, is a well known gang lord and loan shark, who heavily funds the MDP. President Nasheed’s MDP had in fact threatened the Judiciary with violence and unrest should the court decision not be in MDP’s favour. Speaking as an MDP rally on June 4th, MDP Parliamentary Group leader Reeko Moosa Maniku warned the High Court there would be civil unrest if the court ruling went against the MDP candidate. The warning was delivered in the midst of spate of attacks on opposition leaders and Ghassan supporters in Thimarafushi. The family home of a key witness for Ghassan Maumoon was torched by the MDP on the day of her deposition in court.

The High Court decision also throws into the spotlight the issue of missing ballot papers and falsified vote results sheets. At the court hearings on Ghassan Maumoon’s case, presiding Judge Ali Hameed specifically questioned the Elections Commission on irregularities in signatures on the elections results sheet, irregularities in the handover process of the ballot box to Elections Commission officials and on the issue of 115 ballot papers that were missing from the box. Upon close questioning, Deputy Elections Commissioner Hussain Siraj admitted that the ballot results sheet was falsified and that 155 ballot papers missing from the ballot box had disappeared before the ballot box had reached the Commission. The Elections Commissions had previously in court admitted violation of regulations on several issues in the case.

The issue of falsified results sheets has dogged the EC even at the time of the 2008 presidential elections. At that time, President Nasheed’s cousin by marriage Saabe was Deputy Commissioner of the EC. Commissioner Shahid, a top official in the MDP, resigned just prior to the elections saying that his wife, President Nasheed’s cousin Eva Abdulla, was contesting the parliamentary elections as an MDP candidate. However, in the days of vote counting and preparation of final results by the EC, ex-Commisioner Shahid was known to have accessed the vote data sheets. He was removed from the EC premises by police after public protested of illegal entry and illegal access to elections data by Shahid.

The High Court verdict declared that it is the mandate of the EC to ensure that electoral voting took place in a free and fair environment, one that was free from fear, intimidation, fighting and corruption, and in which every citizen could freely exercise their constitutional right to vote. It said that that it is a right of citizens to have such an environment, a right that could not be abrogated except in accordance with Article 16 of the Constitution.

The burning question is whether the EC will even try and ensure free and fair elections in the second round of voting in Thimarafushi. It has to be noted that, even though concrete evidence has been presented in court and in the public domain, the EC has so far failed to pursue legal action against any of the people who committed illegal acts during voting on the island that day. Similarly, the Prosecutor General also has shown extreme zealousness in pursing certain cases sent by the EC, while deferring others. A case in point is the case of the PG deciding to pursue legal action against Thoddoo MP Ali Waheed, while arbitrarily deciding to drop the same charges against the then presidential candidate Mohamed Nasheed.

There also remains the question of whether the Maldives Police Service can indeed provide support to ensure peaceful and free voting conditions. In the past month, the police, led by President Nasheed’s appointee Ahmed Faseeh, have shown a remarkable willingness to be used as a tool in Nasheed’s persecution of opposition leaders.

Much also depends on the independence and vigilance of the Maldives Human Rights Commission. Sadly, to date, the HRC appears to have cowed into silence by President Nasheed even as he continues to trample upon citizen rights day in day out.

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