Can you imagine a country without a court? That’s how we were, says Aishath Velezinee. As a member of the Judicial Service Commission she was in charge of reforming the Maldives' judicial system after years of dictatorship. But the country’s brief period of democracy didn’t last. This February democratically elected president Nasheed was ousted in a coup. “Before we elected Nasheed we removed a dictator,” Velezinee says, “but we failed to remove his regime.”
Velezinee’s story has all the elements of a Hollywood movie. Out of the ten members of the Judicial Service Commission she was the only one willing to reform. And her battle against corrupt elements in the commission wasn’t appreciated.
On her way to work one day, two men on a motorcycle attacked her. She was stabbed three times in the back. “I felt a thump” - she slaps her hands together making a dull noise. ”When I touched my back my hands were covered in blood.”
But unlike the movies in Velezinee’s story, justice didn’t prevail.
“The first thing I was told after February’s coup and the new leaders took over is that they cannot investigate the matter of my attack any further. Case is closed,” Velezinee says, showing surprisingly little emotions.
When she talks about the events leading up to the attack she sounds determined, never displaying a trace of fear.
Fight for democracy
“We had the courts, we had the system, but it was commonly understood that the supreme justice was in the hands of Maumoon Gayoom.”
Aishath Velezinee had been working for the government of the autocratic ruler of the Maldives (Maumoon Gayoom led the country from 1978 to 2008) for 19 years when she left to study in The Netherlands.
After getting her master's degree in Women’s Studies, Velezinee returned in 2005 to a country in transition. When she had left the Maldives in September 2003 the first cracks in Gayoom's regime had begun to form.
The murder of Evan Naseem, a young man killed in police custody, became the catalyst for the reform movement.
It would take the Maldives a few more years to become a democracy.
Judicial Service Committee
As the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, president Mohamed Nasheed was burdened with two major concerns: running a democratic government as well as building the system from the ground up.
According to Velezinee, that’s where things went wrong.
“The Judicial Service Commission (JSC) had to assess every sitting judge. The ones that were found not qualified were supposed to be let go.”
But Velezinee soon found out she was the only one with that view.
“Old elements from the Gayoom regime infiltrated and worked on retaining the set of judges that were put in place under his regime,” she says.
During her time in the JSC, Velezinee managed to uncover some alarming details about sitting judges.
She found out that hardly any of the judges were qualified to hold the position. Some of them had no legal background at all. On top of that, she discovered that some of the judges even had criminal records themselves.
“Had I not had the access to the information I had in the JSC, I would never had thought we had criminals sitting on the bench.”
Without the support of the JSC, Velezinee kept on digging up information the commission would rather have covered up.
“I kept on going, because I wanted to give the public an opportunity to fight against the system. If not now, we would get another chance in five years. I thought.”
But instead of the five years judges were allowed to serve under the new constitution, the JSC gave all the judges – appointed by the former regime – tenures for life.
By the end of 2011 president Nasheed’s government was experiencing the results of a dysfunctional judiciary system.
It gave the opposition the momentum it needed to fuel large anti-government demonstrations in the country’s capital Male.
On 7 February Mohamed Nasheed was forced to resign from his post. Part of the statement his statement read: “I wish the Maldives would have a consolidated democracy. I wish for justice to be established.”
A silver lining
“If there had been a system in place, Nasheed would have had access to justice, he could have challenged his resignation. But there is no court to go to now, the courts are all controlled by supporters of the old regime,” Velezinee says.
Although she doesn’t show it now, Velezinee admits that this was an emotional period for her. For a while the public, unaware of what was going on behind the scenes, labelled her a ‘crazy lady’.
“To the public, I was accusing senior people they had respected for years. It was hard for them to accept what I was trying to tell them,” Velezinee says.
But she does see a silver lining in the recent coup.
“I think things happen in strange ways. If we had managed to reform the judicial system some years back we would have missed the bad elements that were still there. Now the Maldives are being given a new opportunity to clean up well this time around.”
Velezinee, still an advocate for change, speaks regularly at demonstrations held weekly to call for democratic elections. She refuses to give up on her dream of a democratic Maldives.