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Econonmy Politics Transparency

Ramkalawan’s US Visit: An Opportunity to Get Seychelles Back on Track

Wavel Ramkalawan’s recent visit to the United States for President Biden’s US-Africa Leaders Summit last week left people with more questions than answers. Although ostensibly joining other leaders from across the African continent for a summit meant to focus on civil society, business, diaspora and youth leadership, one could not help but wonder whether or not the administration had other hopes for the visit.

Seychelles, as is the case with quite a few other African nations, has been falling victim to Russian influence. The ongoing war in Ukraine has seen the Russian Federation increasingly isolated globally and looking for allies across the world susceptible to their narrative. Seychelles, under the leadership of Ramkalawan, is a particularly ripe potential ally, considering the central role that Seychelles has played and continues to play in providing offshore accounts to circumvent tax or sanctions, laundering money and facilitating extensive illicit activities.

Ramkalawan has understood the potential niche role that his country can play providing a safe haven for the finances and interests of the world’s most corrupt individuals and pariah states. This is far from speculation, and was covered extensively in a report published by the reputable International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). It is doubtful if senior diplomats at the State Department did not take the opportunity to discuss their concerns with Ramkalawan in person, who with the right amount of pressure just might be swayed to abandon his policy of working with Russian money and actively allowing Russian influence in the Seychelles.

Indeed, such summits are often an excellent opportunity to be able to convey such concerns to developing world governments. Such was certainly the case with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who according to public reports received messages from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding the potential for bloodshed in the DRC, and the need to have a positive impact through his country’s network of support for M23 rebels.

Another issue which Ramkalawan may have been dismayed to receive warnings about has been the pattern of democratic backsliding that has been evident in his nation over the course of the past year. This has included everything from exerting control over the press at the expense of freedom of expression, the passing of legislation aimed at empowering the military to act at the President’s will in times of peace as well as the locking up of political enemies. The US which has traditionally been concerned over instances of authoritarianism rearing its ugly head, is certainly concerned about this pattern of troubling domestic developments in the Seychelles.

If however, after receiving such warnings no concrete change is effected on the ground, it would be time to consider alternative options. While it is doubtful if this would include sanctions, certainly international aid conditionally is a tool which the US has in the past used in cases such as these. As the US is the most significant single contributor to organizations like the IMF and World Bank, it would not be outside the remit of the United States to demand comprehensive democratic reform in the Seychelles if international aid was to be continued. Such a scenario would see Ramkalawan and his government pushed into a corner and required to alter their course immediately to avoid financial bankruptcy and isolation.

With authoritarian regimes like Ramkalawan’s, it is difficult to know if such a course of action would be successful or alternatively, if it might just push him and his government further into the hands of Russia and other anti-democratic actors. However, one thing to certain: The United States must continue to be active along the lines it sees fit to ensure the Seychelles don’t move further into Russia’s sphere of influence and the fragile cornerstones of democracy are not uprooted by Ramkalawan.

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Econonmy Politics Transparency

Tales of Corruption and Illusions of Impunity

The saga that is the trial of Mukesh and Laura Valabhji continued in court on December 3rd, when the couple returned to court for a continued hearing on the status of their property. The property in question, Morne Blanc, continues to be under the detention of the police, with a court ruling issued on November 9th extending the detention by 60 days.

Objections were filed by the couple’s legal representation Ms. Samantha Aglae, who has expressed the couple’s discontent with the continued detained status of the property. The explanation provided has been less than adequate, with the police and the Seychelles Anti-Corruption Commission (ACCS) investigators claiming that further searches still need to be conducted, even though the Seychelles Police has been in custody of the property since 18 November 2021. Of course, one would think that any professional police force, including European funded and trained ACCS investigators under the guidance of former UK police officer Patrick Humphrey, should have been able to complete all required searches in less than 54 weeks.

And in fact, the Seychelles Police have already admitted that no further searches are ongoing at the property. Detective Sergeant Davis Simeon of the Seychelles Police admitted as much in his affidavit to the court dated 28 June 2022, in which he swore that the search of the Morne Blanc property had finished & that the premises were no longer considered a crime-scene. Why, after 5 months & a sworn affidavit from the Police that their work was finished, is the ACCS now claiming that investigative work on the physical premises is still ongoing? What are they hiding?

More concerning than the flip-flop on legal rationale is the fact that the couple have been denied access to even the most basic things, such as collecting their own personal effects. This has included things as innocent as food for pets as well a range of vehicles that require servicing to ensure their safe operation, all of which needless to say having no relation to the trial and have not been confiscated, nor has the government sought their seizure. The reason such basic things have been denied remains unclear, but speculation has it that more likely than not the property has been completely pillaged by the government.

A court ruling actually determined that the ACCS must indeed facilitate access, something which the police have continued to push off. The couple’s attorney has expressed concern that the state of the property is rapidly deteriorating, despite a court mandated order that obligates the police to care for the property’s maintenance. Furthermore there are assets which are not under detention which the police have been similarly blocking access to.

The protection of personal property is one of the most basic rights in a democracy, developing or established. Without this there can be no rule of law. Beyond the question of what is happening with the trial of the 50 million in Seychelles, the violation of the fundamental human right of the protection of personal property should be of concern to international human rights organisations, which have been monitoring the rapidly deteriorating state of affairs in the country very closely.

It should similarly be of concern to Ambassador Vincent Degert, the EU diplomat tasked with covering Seychelles. Although it has been reported that Degert is quite close with President Ramkalawan as well as UK barrister Steven Powles KC, there are scenarios in which friendship must take a backseat. And one of those scenarios is cases where fundamental human rights are being violated.

Property detention cannot be extended endlessly, and if the government would like to continue blocking access to the property it must explain and prove in a court the reason why this continues to be necessary. It must also provide adequate explanation as to why it has prevented access to properties that are not under detention and why the most basic of personal effects cannot be removed from a house which while under detention, is not currently being actively searched. Unless of course, as appears to be the case, police, in collaboration with the government are simply making use of this stranglehold over the Valabhji couple’s finances to extort an admission of guilt.

Perhaps however, the government was not informed of the fact that such behaviour is in essence extortion, a criminal offense in most democracies. In the faux democracy that is the Seychelles though, the government thinks it can continue to operate with endless impunity. President Ramkalawan and his allies are in for a rude awakening, as decision makers in the EU continue to deliberate the future of their relationship with the island nation. Even Seychelles is not outside the wide reach of international justice.

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Econonmy Indian Ocean Justice Transparency

Without Principled Jurists, There is Little Reason for Optimism for Justice in the Seychelles

Justice Mathilda Twomey of Seychelles was considered one of the greatest legal minds the Seychelles had ever known, appointed to the position of Chief Justice in August of 2015 based on the unanimous recommendation of the Constitutional Appointments Authority. She had previously served as non-resident judge of the Court of Appeal where she began in March 2011 as the first female judge in the country’s history. Mrs Twomey also had an impressive legal career prior, including both in the private sector as well as in academia. Her commitment to justice and human rights led to her being the first the first Seychellois, and only one of fifteen people globally, to be awarded the prestigious Franco-German Human Rights Prize. It was her commitment to human rights that would ultimately prove to be her greatest challenge. 

Upon accepting her position as Chief Justice, Mrs Twomey made her acceptance contingent on a limited 5-year term. This was the case, in her words, “because I believe that long periods of service, particularly in positions of leadership and power, are a key way in which a public servant forgets their mandate and loses their vigour, and the role becomes less about the noble office, but the individual that holds it.” She was not wrong to believe that lifetime appointments are a recipe for nepotism and corruption, with the majority of judges polled in a 2020 survey opposing lifetime appointments for exactly that reason. 

What has yet to be reported is that discussions were actually already underway to extend her term, had Danny Faure, and incumbent United Seychelles, won the 2020 election. Throughout her career, Mrs Twomey’s commitment has been above all to two central issues, the protection of human rights and combatting corruption. As she stated prior to her departure, in a not so subtle message to the yet to be elected (at the time) Wavel Ramkalawan, “We need to hold people to account – even when they are well loved, or wealthy or powerful.”

In her farewell prior to her departure, Mrs Twomey also highlighted a number of areas that required attention in the Seychelles justice system. The two principles most pertinent among these included constitutionalism which ensures that, “the rule of law is upheld, where fundamental human rights and freedoms of all are valued, and where accountability and transparency are the norm, and not the exception”. She also discussed accountability where, “each person needs to play their part despite the risks”.

Having such a principled crusader against corruption would have certainly proved to be extremely inconvenient for an administration as full of corruption as that of Wavel Ramkalawan’s. Similarly problematic would have been Mrs Twomey’s commitment to human rights. Ramkalawn’s government therefore saw her eventually replaced with a strategic appointment to the Supreme Court, current Chief Justice Ronny Govinden, who has been orchestrating, on the government’s behalf a politically motivated trial against 9 defendants arrested at the end of last year. Govinden is a known lackey of the President, even reporting to him on a weekly basis during informal updates which take place outside of business hours over the weekend. Govinden in turn, has continued to prove his loyalty to the President, updating him throughout the course of the trial and advancing legislation which might play in the government’s favor. 

The case has seen extensive corruption, miscarriages of justice and the violation of defendants most basic human rights. Govinden was appointed to the position a mere month after Ramkalawan was elected and has seen this case as his trial by fire. Successfully ridding the country of the President’s political enemies, alongside a second Ramkalawan term, would certainly see Govinden progressing to even more powerful political positions. 

Mrs Twomey understood that despite her best efforts to create a justice system whose sole focus was justice, circumstance, along with the individuals involved with the justice system would make that impossible. One such example was lead investigator in the case, Patrick Humphrey. A former British detective and one of the leads on training local investigators, Humphrey became close to Twomey and tried to abuse that friendship to get information on the case’s progress. Incidentally it was exactly around this time that Twomey participated in an interview for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), where she highlighted in relation to legal proceedings, the need “to ensure that the process is not susceptible to abuse or undue influence”. 

In her farewell speech, Twomey, despite again emphasizing her previous commitment to step down after 5 years, alluded to the true reason behind her departure. She stated, “Turning a blind eye to petty corruption, tardy behavior, lack of transparency and accountability delegitimizes our institution. We need to stride towards achieving human rights and not dismantle what has been built. Our judges need to be brave and act justly all the time.” 

Her decision to move down to the Court of Appeal was a brave one that not many would take. Feeling that her ability to positively impact the country’s justice system would be better served by working on a court that was less politicized could not have been more true. Sadly, since her departure, the Supreme Court has only become more and more politically manipulated. Legal procedure has been thrown out the window, defendants held without bail for months on end in appalling conditions, while the government works with the court hand in hand to change laws such that they serve their own agenda. 

Lack of rule of law has also seen the passing of constitutional amendments supporting the government’s authoritarian tendencies, such as a recent amendment which saw the military allowing the military to operate in domestic matters outside states of emergency. Concerns were raised at the highest levels of government, including by Ombudsman, Nichole Tirant-Ghérardi who said, “The spectre of members of the defence forces maintaining law and order or running any essential service in the country on a permanent or semi-permanent basis does not sit well with that notion of democracy”. 
Without principled jurists like Mathilda Twomey leading the country’s courts, unfortunately, the future of the Seychelles justice system is not encouraging. The last available World Economic Forum ranking for the country isn’t very optimistic, placing the Seychelles justice system in 63rd place, after countries where corruption in the justice system is public knowledge, including South Africa, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. The ranking also identified the trend as headed in a negative direction. Only time will tell how accurate that prediction will prove to be, however, if the ongoing corruption trial in the Seychelles is any indication, there isn’t much reason for optimism.