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Economy Indian Ocean Politics

There Is No Such Thing As “Legal Rights” In Today’s Seychelles

The right of a defendant to legal representation is one of the most basic aspects of international justice. No matter how horrific the crime, every person accused of committing a crime is entitled to having their case heard with the help of an attorney in a court of law. This seems to be true everywhere but in Seychelles, where the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACCS), under the leadership of May De Silva, has been denying the Valabhji couple, defendants in the case sinisterly named “Operation Black Iron” their right to legal representation.

Of course, the ACCS, and the foreign lawyers which they have employed throughout the course of the trial, such as barristers Michael Skelley & Ed Vickers of London’s Red Lion Chambers, are far too proficient in the technical aspects of the law to directly deny defendants legal representation. Especially in a trial that has been so heavily covered in the international press. Rather they have come up with an intelligent way of doing so while maintaining an airs of innocence.

What they have done is simply make it impossible for the defendants to afford to pay their lawyers. This is by tying up and obstructing access to funds and determining where the defendants might and might not be able to pay their representation from. As committed as they are to the case, lawyers cannot be expected to work for free and their time can be quite expensive especially when dealing with high level cases such as these. The ACCS know this and have been taking advantage of this fact, forcing defendants to let their international representation go and needing to rely, of late, on local lawyers only recently brought into the case.

Of course this is the perfect move for a government which would like to brand itself as a democracy. The government of Wavel Ramkalawan wants to be seen as a democratizing force for the greater good, despite the gross mismanagement of the economy, destruction of the welfare state, out of control costs, rampant government corruption and spiralling violent crime. And locking up political enemies as well as blocking their ability to defend themselves adequately in court does not sit well with the notion of democracy in any way, shape or form.

The ability to highlight this in the press is probably the last chance at impacting government decisions such as these and encouraging them to consider reversing course. That is of course until the government gets down to restricting press freedom as well. It is difficult to tell what direction political prosecution will next take in Wavel Ramkalawan’s Seychelles.

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Indian Ocean Politics Transparency

Wavel Ramkalawan Staffs His Military With Loyalists

There are some things that no longer come as a surprise to anyone. One of those is the ability of those in power to do everything and anything possible to cling to power. Such was the case with the recent appointment of the former Commander of the Seychelles Coast Guard, Colonel Jean Attala, as the new Chief of Staff of the Seychelles People’s Defence Force (SPDF).

Despite the fact that its name suggests that its purpose is to protect the interests of the people, President Wavel Ramkalawan has once again proven that the sole purpose of the military is to uphold his own personal interests. The long history of the Seychelles with political instability, means that the most important component of staying in power is ensuring a loyal military. And that is exactly what the President has done, filling the most senior ranks of the armed forces with loyalists.

This appointment follows a recent constitutional amendment according to which the government extended the powers of the military to domestic operations in times of peace. This constitutional amendment was decried by human rights organizations the world over, as well as by the country’s own Ombudsman, Bar Association and by the Seychelles Human Rights Commission who went so far as to take the issue to court in September, challenging the constitutionality of the proposed change. In this regard, they said in a joint press communiqué that the organisations assert their shared concerns that the change, known as the Tenth Amendment ,“undermines the democratic protections afforded by the Constitution, in particular due process, the rule of law and human rights”.

The direction which the country is going in is most concerning. Struggling for democracy after overcoming the rule of longtime strong man France-Albert René who ruled from 1977 till 2004, the gradual but certain process of democratic backsliding appears to only be worsening. The ongoing heavily covered trial surrounding 50 million dollars, and reported extensive human rights violations taking place against defendants, is a clear indication of the way in which business is conducted by the government. These individual actions, coupled with insidious Russian influence that appears to be continuously increasing, should only make us more concerned, particularly in light of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Do not be fooled. This is not a case of the boy crying wolf. The chance for Seychelles to degenerate into an autocratic government stuck in the stranglehold of Wavel Ramkalawan is very real. Without real change that is encouraged by international pressure, it is unreasonable to assume that things will get anything but worse.

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Indian Ocean Justice Politics Transparency

No Fairness Before the Courts in Seychelles

The greatest threat to democracy is a government that fails to protect its citizen’s freedom and liberty as aggressively as it pursues justice.

As the legal case against the group that has come to be known as the “Seychelles 9” proceeds, more questions appear to be presenting themselves than answers. As a reminder, the case involves nine Seychellois arrested between November of last year and January of this year on a mix of charges reported to be trumped up. The targets of Wavel Ramkalawan’s government crackdown are all known to have been associated with the government of former President Rene. This has included former ministers, military officers, senior advisors as well as family members of the island’s former President. 

People following the intricacies of the case are already familiar with the range of problematic issues which have been apparent. These have included violations of the defendants’ human rights, withholding legal representation and the government doing everything in its power, including employing intimidation tactics, to scare off the defendants’ international lawyers. The involvement of terrorism and weapons charges in the case raised eyebrows even further, leading the government to bring in external “experts” who have yet to corroborate their claims. 

The case’s latest development has included two of the justices on the case, the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Anthony Fernando and Justice Samia Andre recusing themselves from the bail hearing of one of the defendants, Laura Valabhji. In reference to the case against her it had been claimed that “there is simply not one jot, one iota, one piece of evidence that directly implicates Laura Valabhji in this alleged offence”. Lack of evidence has not swayed the courts, who have to date refused Mrs. Valabhji’s application for bail. It was most probably this lack of evidence and insistence on prosecuting a seemingly innocent woman that led to the justices recusing themselves. Coincidentally, inside sources indicated to Seychelles Watch that these were the justices rumoured to be most sympathetic to Mrs. Valabhji’s bail application and improving her conditions. 

The recusal should be seen in the context of vast government interference which we have seen throughout the course of the trial. Considering their staunch commitment to justice, it is hard to be believe that the justices, including the President of the court, would recuse themselves when such a severe miscarriage of justice was being perpetrated. Rather, it is clear to those familiar with the inner working of the Seychelles justice system under Wavel Ramkalawan, that this recusal must have been forced by government as a means of ensuring Mrs. Valabhji stays incarcerated despite legitimate grounds for bail. Keeping her incommunicado and separated from her husband is the only way to ensure that whatever ulterior motive lies behind the arrest is not exposed. These considerations have also been what has supported the court’s decision to not allow unsupervised visits between the Valabhji couple, as well as with their attorneys, meetings which must be held in private in order to plan their defence. 

This resignation has been coupled with continued unexplained delays in Mrs. Valabhji’s next bail hearing, which according to a recent announcement will be held during its August session, nine months after her arrest in December 2021. The excuse given, alongside the recusal of the justices, is that Justice Dr Mathilda Twomey and Justice Lillian Tibatemwa-Ekirikubinza are currently abroad, with only Justice Fiona Robinson available for the hearing. Three justices are required for a bail hearing. 

Mrs. Valabhji on the other hand has pleaded to hold her bail hearing sooner rather than later. Aside from her immediate interest in finally being released to house arrest and being held in humane conditions, Mrs. Valabhji has made it clear that it is uncertain that she will have access to legal representation in August, as she is represented by international council. A defendant having adequate access to legal representation would appear to be a sufficient reason to consider her request, which was denied. 

These peculiar decisions regarding the bail hearing are coupled with further inconsistencies and questionable decisions that have been made by the court time and time again. Chief Justice Ronny Govinden recently imposed an arbitrary (and illegal) limit on Mrs. Valabhji’s legal representation. Only last week he refused to admit the defendant’s third lawyer, with his justification being, according to witnesses in the court, that the defendant already had two lawyers. The Seychellois legal system does not impose limitations on the amount of lawyers a defendant may employ. 

The lack of fairness before the courts in Seychelles has been evident throughout the course of the trial. As time progresses, the extent to which this problem plagues the highest courts in the land has become apparent. And as the adage goes, “There is no greater threat to a free and democratic nation than a government that fails to protect its citizen’s freedom and liberty as aggressively as it pursues 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.

Categories
Indian Ocean Transparency

The Times: English Barristers Criticised over Seychelles ‘Show Trial’

Senior London barristers allege that due process has been breached in the Seychelles
Senior London barristers allege that due process has been breached in the Seychelles

Senior London barristers are embroiled in a row over “a politically motivated prosecution” that has allegedly breached due process in the Seychelles.

The family of two defendants who are accused of corruption and weapons charges on the Indian Ocean island have expressed “distress” that one of the prosecution lawyers is a QC from a prominent human rights chambers.

Stephen Powles QC, a tenant at Doughty Street, has been instructed by the Seychelles government jointly to lead the prosecution against nine defendants who are associated with or related to France Albert René, the country’s former resident, who died aged 83 in 2019.

René had stepped down in 2004, but his party remained in power until 2020, when it lost elections for the first time in 43 years to a party led by Wavel Ramkalawan, the present leader.

Powles is joined on the prosecution side by Edmund Vickers QC of Red Lion Chambers and two junior barristers from London sets. The defendants include Mukesh Valabhji and his wife, Laura. Valabhji, a former senior figure at the Seychelles Marketing Board, and his wife have been accused of conspiracy to launder money and possession of weapons. The pair deny all of the charges. Their lawyers, based in London at the law firm Kobre & Kim, claim that the authorities have committed “numerous abuses of procedure and of the defendants’ rights”. The lawyers allege that the pair have been unlawfully detained for six months and refused bail “without charge or trial, despite the defendants representing no threat or flight risk”. They claim that the Seychelles government retrospectively amended corruption laws to give the prosecution new powers. The legal team argues that the anti-corruption commission of the Seychelles (ACCS), a prosecution body, ultimately acknowledged that it lacked the authority to bring charges against the defendants. However, Jason Masimore, a partner at Kobre & Kim, says that the court “refused to dismiss the charges so that the government could pass new laws in favour of the ACCS”.

He adds: “This act of judicial overreach highlights concerns we have raised that there is no separation of powers between the judiciary and government.” He says that the “politically motivated show trial continues to lack any credible evidence of wrongdoing by the accused and contains a complete absence of due process”.

There are no suggestions that Powles and the other London lawyers acting for the prosecution have behaved unlawfully or unethically.

However, one close family member of the couple says: “We are in despair and matters are made worse for us as we see that the prosecution is receiving help from two leading QCs from highly respected London chambers, one of which has always had a stellar reputation in the field of human rights.”

The case is the latest in which English barristers have faced criticism for acting for overseas governments that have what some consider to be poor records on human rights.

While human rights in the former British colony are widely considered to have improved, there has been a history of abuses since the island gained independence in 1976.

Last year, David Perry QC, a tenant at 6KBW College Hill chambers, was criticised after he was instructed to prosecute pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong. The silk eventually withdrew from the case.

In September Dinah Rose QC of Blackstone Chambers who is also the president of Magdalen College at Oxford University, was criticised by an LGBT student group for acting for the government of the Cayman Islands as it defended its ban on gay marriage in a Privy Council case.

Before this month’s Commonwealth heads of government meeting, the Valabhjis’ legal team aims to raise the case with Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, who is the Commonwealth secretary-general and a former Labour attorney-general. The Valabhjis’ lawyers say that they have already raised concerns with the British Foreign Office.

The Seychelles authorities did not respond to a request for comment. Powles declined to comment as the case was ongoing.

Republished from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/english-barristers-criticised-over-seychelles-show-trial-vvvq0ntgp written by Jonathan Ames

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Economy Indian Ocean Politics

India & China Influence in Seychelles

India and Seychelles have strengthened their military collaboration with the delivery of equipment and joint training. Allowing India to ensure its presence in the area with the development of its military base in the archipelago.
In addition, the Indian High Commissioner stated that India will assist Seychelles with the construction of a coast guard radar system and other defense issues. After a request from Seychelles’ President and Minster of Defense Wavel Ramkalawan.

Since 2018, the two countries have signed a lease agreement for the island of Assumption for 20 years. The Indians set up a military base there. It is located 370 km northeast of Mayotte. During a handing over ceremony for three ceremonial weapons and ammunition as well as a wave-rider boat gifted by the Indian government, General Dalbir Singh Suhag, a former chief of army staff of the Indian Army, spoke about the radar system donation. Onboard the INS Gharial, the vessel that delivered the firearms and ammo to the island state, the guns and 500 rounds of ammunition were handed over.

The firearms will be used on “important national occasions such as the National Day,” according to Michael Rosette, chief of the Seychelles Defence Forces (SDF). Seychelles, an archipelago in the western Indian Ocean, also received a wave-rider boat, bringing the total number of wave-rider boats in the coast guard’s fleet to three.

Seychelles Coast Guard personnel have been taught to use the newest addition of radar technology to the fleet, which will aid in the island nation’s coastal surveillance. Suhag stated that India and Seychelles have a positive relationship with “many shared fields of concern,” such as terrorism and illegal and irregular fishing.

Military soldiers from the Seychelles and India participated in the 10-day Exercise ‘Lanmitye’ last month, in which they simulated counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism, and anti-piracy operations. Seychelles, an archipelago in the western Indian Ocean, has a long history of defense and security cooperation with India. Maritime security, anti-piracy operations, air surveillance, training, and capacity building are all part of this.

The Indian Ocean is critical to global trade, security, and geopolitics. From the Strait of Malacca and Australia’s western coast in the east to the Mozambique Channel in the west, the Indian Ocean is a large theater. It stretches from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south.

It is quickly establishing itself as the site of competition between India and China. China has used unjust and predatory economic tactics to achieve its geopolitical objectives in the region, most notably by acquiring access to military bases and critical ports.

Four nations in the IOR, namely Djibouti, Laos, Maldives, and Pakistan, are “exposed to above-average debt” to China, according to data from the Center for Global Development. When the Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are viewed in the context of China’s acquisition and development of a military facility in Djibouti, it becomes evident that China is surrounding India in its backyard.

One of Narendra Modi’s first international tours after being elected Indian Prime Minister in 2014 was to Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, and Mauritius, where he launched a new “SAGAR” policy (Security and Growth for All in the Region). The Modi government’s goal was to boost India’s economic and political might, improve communication, and protect islands from a variety of security challenges, including climate change. It is also clearly trying to foster regional solidarity as a means of deterring China’s continued growth.

All this is part of India’s plan to counter China’s growing influence and power in the region. However, one must ask themselves what is Seychelles losing out in doing business with India?

Categories
Indian Ocean Politics Transparency

Believe It or Not The President’s Son is a Drug Dealer

A recent drug bust of over two tons of drugs aboard the French vessel Le Floréal was made only 200 nautical miles from Victoria. Taking place within the context of an EU NAVFOR ATALANTA Counter-Narcotics operation, President Wavel Ramkalawan used this as an opportunity to reaffirm that, “Seychelles will continue to cooperate with its international partners in the fight against drugs”.

Considering this statement and The President’s firm commitment to go hard on those engaged in trafficking the drugs which are destroying families in the Seychelles, some might find it hard to believe that Wavel Ramkalawan’s own son Samuel Ramkalawan was implicated, not too long ago, in a drug dealing scandal. It would not be surprising if you have not heard of it considering the efforts Ramkalawan himself, along with his cronies, have made to hush up the story. One might be surprised to see that the President would hush up a story about a son who so embarrassed him in front of the nation with a public fist fight. However, Ramkalawan’s alleged “commitment” to the war on drugs means he cannot afford to be publicly perceived to have a drug dealing member of the family, even if he is not close with Samuel.

February 2021 saw a story reported involving the deportation of two Kenyan nationals, Nassim Anwar Onezime and her Seychellois husband, Andy Terry Onezime for drug dealing. Both were known to law enforcement and had been, according to 2017 Seychelles court documents, suspected by the National Drug Enforcement Agency (NDEA) of heroin trafficking between Kenya & Seychelles as far back as 2013. They had also previously been engaged in a case with the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU). How Samuel Ramkalawan, the son of The President became mixed up with them is unclear however, what is known it that Nassim was deported back to Kenya on Monday February 1, 2021 in the early hours of the morning onboard an Island Development Company (IDC) aircraft. 

Although President Ramkalawan issued a statement on the subject of the arrest, naturally no mention was made of his own son’s involvement. A later interview given by Nassim similarly made no mention of Samuel’s involvement. It should not be expected that the son of an autocrat caught up in a drug scandal would be made public information, however this is information which the public has the right and duty to know. 

The lightining speed deportation of a drug smuggler caught red handed should raise more than a few eyebrows. Deportation usually takes time and the country in which a criminal is caught due to the need for proper judicial processing of all individuals caught. It is also perplexing why they were deported on a state-owned private airplane run by IDC, where incidentally Samuel Ramkalawan’s brother, Caleb, is a trainee pilot. What exactly was it that the government was trying to hide by getting Nassim out of the country as soon as possible? More likely than not, Samuel Ramkalawan’s involvement in the crime. 

As a President who has emphasized his commitment to the war on drugs, alongside his being a public figure with a commitment to the people, it is unacceptable to be hushing up a story of such significance. While the President himself bears no responsibility for the actions of his adult son, he does have a responsibility to be transparent with the people of the Seychelles. And that means making them aware of his son’s involvement in the illegal drug trade which has been tearing the country apart. 

Even more concerning is what else the President might be hiding from the public. Are there other things we should know about? Backdoor deals taking place enriching himself and his cronies at our expense? Payoffs changing hands to ensure that secrets are well-guarded from the general public? Public tenders being issued without the required transparency and public competition? Other cases that lack fair judicial process?

The law is the law is the law. And if it doesn’t apply to everyone, it applies to no one. This is something President Ramkalawan must understand. It’s time he came forward and was transparent with the people. Without a sense of trust between the President and the people, what is democracy in Seychelles worth? 

Update 29 of April, 2022:

Unlawful arrest of a Kenyan national is the subject of an appeal.

Nasim Onezime, the Kenyan national who was detained and deported to Kenya, had her appeal refused by the Court of Appeal. She filed a petition with the Constitutional Court after her deportation on February 1, 2021, seeking compensation from damages from the government for unlawful arrest and detention that violated numerous of her constitutional rights. The petition included a personal affidavit.

Categories
Indian Ocean Transparency

Democracy in the Seychelles Can Only Go Downhill From Here

Laura Valabhji Bail Denied

The March 23 bail hearing of Laura Valabhji provided those following the case of the missing USD 50 million donation with all the confirmation they need that the case is yet another show trial orchestrated by Wavel Ramkalwan’s government. The bail request, which sought to secure Valabhji’s transfer to house arrest, was rejected. Having been remanded already for almost 5 months now and fully cooperating with law enforcement officials, the rejection of her bail application is indeed peculiar. In light of the fact that the government entity leading the prosecution, the Anti-Corruption Commission of Seychelles (ACCS), self-admittedly will not be ready for trial for at least another year, the rejection of Valabhji’s application raises many questions that the public are asking.

Valabhji is an attorney by profession and worked extensively with the Attorney General’s office in the past. Without any concrete charges having been brought against her in particular, it is unclear why a woman with a sterling reputation is still being held, other than for the “crime” of being part of a family that had past political affiliations with the previous government.

With her defence claiming, “there is simply not one jot, one iota, one piece of evidence that directly implicates Laura Valabhji in this alleged offence”, at a minimum Valabhji should have been offered bail under terms similar to those offered to another defendant, Sarah Zarqani-René. Although even this would be a “catch-22” of sorts. Zarqani-René was offered to be released to house arrest in exchange for USD 2 million in bail, which mockingly the judge stipulated must be paid all in cash. Had Valabhji been offered such a deal and come up with the funds, the prosecution would have surely used this against her, noting her ability to put together such a sum.

Or perhaps, there is something else more sinister at play than Valabhji’s “guilt”, leading law enforcement and the ACCS to want to keep her behind bars at all costs? As a successful family in a small country, one can only image the extent of the looting which undoubtably took place on the properties of the Valabhji family subsequent to their arrest.

Part of the accusations now being brought against her husband Mukesh include stashing weapons behind a wall in one of their homes. Putting aside the fact that the cache was a known government one, the fact that it was found behind a wall, only exemplifies the extent to which authorities made it their business to hunt for, and probably steal, anything and everything of value. This includes a vast collection of expensive wines, priceless artwork and personal effects. None of this should come as a surprise in a country led by a government where rule of law is lowest on the list of government priorities.

The structure of the justice system in Seychelles is problematic from a legal perspective more generally, granting the government prosecutors expansive authority and placing the burden of proof, in cases such as these, on the defendant. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has in the past expressed significant concern with similar regulations in place in other authoritarian states. In Russia, for example, criticism was expressed in reference to judicial powers the government has when prosecuting human rights defenders with, “wide discretionary powers granted to the Prosecutor’s Office and Executive Authorities”, alongside the, “absence of prior judicial review of decisions…(as) another key procedural flaw that leaves the affected civil society organizations without effective safeguards”.

With Chief Justice Ronny Govinden, a close ally of president Wavel Ramkalawan presiding over the case, all “legal support” he provides that enables the government to further enrich itself will surely find its way back to his own pocket. After all, how did he become Chief Justice if not due to the personal relations he has cultivated throughout the years with government elites. It would not come as a surprise to anyone if Govinden decided to pursue a political career after his time in the legal profession comes to an end. He will have surely developed for himself a wide enough network of senior politicians owing him favors.

The way the government has gone about dealing with Laura Valabhji has exposed their hand and it’s not a very strong one. While holding other suspects behind bars, such as former Chief of Staff Antoine Leopold Payet and former Minister of Finance Maurice Lousteau Lalanne can be excused away as perhaps in one way or another pertinent to the trial, locking up spouses of associates of the former President could only be the work of an authoritarian regime looking to solidify power for years to come. The case of Laura Valabhji is therefore far more than a human rights issue. It should be of concern to all those who value true justice and rule of law and would like to see it preserved in the Seychelles. Because when the government lowers itself to the level of arresting the wives of members of an imaginary political opposition, you know that the state of law and order in the Seychelles can only go downhill from here.

Categories
Indian Ocean Politics Transparency

Power At What Expense?

The Centralization of Power

A 2019 report on Human Rights in Seychelles found a list of issues that the country is suffering from. The report primarily focused on human rights issues ranging from police brutality and prolonged pretrial detention to restrictions on freedom of speech, sexual harassment, and abuse of power by police officers.

Further complicating the Human Rights situation in Seychelles is the fact that the law allows for independent radio and television, while supposedly prohibiting political parties and religious organizations from operating radio stations.

Yet the government funds and has founded half of all radio and television stations: two out of the country’s four radio stations and one of its two television stations. Where not until long ago that the government policed the content being broadcasted while it has allegedly stopped doing that… Straight from the get-go, this seems to be a convenient way for the government to control and suppress potential opposition parties.

In addition, the law requires telecommunication companies to submit subscriber information to the government which has hampered the growth of local non-government-funded or founded stations. Furthermore, the law allows the minister of information technology, currently Vice President Ahmed Afif, to prohibit the broadcast of any material believed to be against the “national interest” or “objectionable.” Unsurprisingly VP Ahmed Afif has been involved in numerous corruption scandals, from the appropriation of government land, amending regulations resulting in less scrutiny in money laundering laws, and misuse of government funds.

Seychelles’s government currently looking at amending the constitution in order to allow military personnel to assist the police without the need for a state emergency. Discussion have been initiated between the Attorney General’s office and the Seychelles Defense Forces, while other parties in the discussions to amend the Constitution will be included, such as the Office of the Ombudsman and the Human Rights Commission

Though at first glance the potential amendment to the constitution allowing military personnel to assist the police without the need for a state of emergency is unremarkable. It becomes particularly concerning when you realize that the Seychelles People’s Defense Forces, composed of the infantry, the special forces, the coast guard, and the air force, report to the president, who acts as the minister of defense.

How can a country in pursuit of being an advocate for Human Rights, pursue the centralization of power without checks. The legitimacy, political motivation, and the potential consequence of such an amendment help shine a light on the perilous condition of the liberty of the country.

Categories
Economy Indian Ocean Politics Transparency

Time to Put an End to Democratic Backsliding in Seychelles is Now

Recent charges levied in a still developing high profile court case in the Seychelles came as no surprise to many. Specifically, conspiracy to commit offences under the Seychelles Prevention of Terrorism Act were levied against ex-President France Albert Rene’s wife Sarah, his son Leslie Benoiton an officer of the Seychelles Defence Forces, Maurice Loustau-Lalanne a former public servant, Lekha Nair former director general of the Ministry of Finance, and a politically tied businessman named Mukesh Valabhji and his wife Laura. This came as no surprise not because these individuals are necessarily guilty, but rather, no surprise because the case is yet another example of the extent to which Wavel Ramkalawan’s government will abuse the country’s justice system in its pursuit of political enemies.

Arrested in November of last year, Rene, Benoiton, Loustau-Lalanne, Nair and the Valabhjis were charged in December with being responsible for, or benefiting from, US $50 million donated from by the UAE to the Seychelles in 2002. The funds, donated to the Seychelles Marketing Board (SMB), which Valabhji was the Director of at the time, were earmarked for helping the country cover food imports it was struggling to pay for. This was as a result of an explosion in its foreign debt and a severe dwindling of its foreign reserves. There were US $11 million in receipts for the purchase of both food and petrol, as intended with the gift, for the Seychellois people made from this account using the funds. New evidence produced by the prosecution shows even more receipts to pay SMB debts.

In functional democracies, the guilt of suspects is usually for a court of law to decide. What is however, becoming more and more apparent in this case is that there is a political motivation behind the trial. Current President Wavel Ramkalawan and his Vice President Ahmed Afif appear to have made it a goal of theirs to rid the country of any and all political opponents, starting with those associated with the former government.

Serving in the opposition for the majority of his political career, Ramkalawan and his party successfully unseated President Danny Faure and his United Seychelles (US) party in October 2020, ending the US party’s continuous rule of the island since 1993. It was not long however, before the new government, under Ramkalawan’s leadership, began consolidating power through arresting “political opposition” members. Ramkalawan indeed needed to solidify his rule vis-a-via a real or perceived opposition.

This decapitation of anyone powerful formerly affiliated with the US party and former President René began with Mukesh Valabhji but by no means ended there. Other measures employed to alter the country’s history and solidify Ramkalawan and the party’s rule included, for example, renaming streets whose original names did not serve the current leadership’s political agenda.

The political motivation behind the arrests can be further seen by looking at those arrested and examining their positions under the former President and party. Those arrested include the former head of the armed forces, the ex-President Rene’s wife Sarah and son Leslie, plus former director general of the Ministry of Finance, a public servant bodyguard together with Mukesh Valabhji and his wife Laura who were overt supporters of President Rene and his successors. A more recently arrested suspect (number 7 in the political witch-hunt) was the former financial controller of the Seychelles Marketing Board Ganeshan Ratnasabapathy.

Interestingly, those associated with the current President who served in key positions at the time the funds went missing have not been arrested. These include current Vice President Ahmed Afif, who was the head of foreign exchange at the central bank at the time and who clearly oversaw and personally approved the transfer of the funds to their desired destination. The role of Afif in the affair indeed is quite peculiar, as even if not guilty, one might expect an investigation to have ensued to at least determine the extent of his guilt. No such investigation ever took place.

The latest development of levying charges against Valabhji under the terrorism act is a new development, and one which should be concerning to those following the delicate democratic transition the archipelago nation has been undergoing. Although not employed previously, these charges allege Valabhji to have stored weapons at his home, with the aim of committing terrorist acts. Found after the couple’s arrest, one can only question the origins of this “weapons cache”.

The President has abused the judicial system at the expense of his country’s own military weapons caches to win a cheap political victory. The weapons seized were imported and registered to the Seychelles Defence Forces (SDF) and were knowingly stored by the government and the armed forces at certain locations after a previous coup attempt stole weapons from the country’s main armory. These weapons were stored at Mukesh Valabhji’s residence at the request and authority of the government now ironically charging him with conspiracy to commit terrorism.

The implications of this case go far beyond what will become of Mukesh Valabhji, his wife Laura, and now 5 additional defendants in the case. Serial violators of human rights do not begin as such. They begin by testing the waters and gauging what the international community’s appetite is for their crimes. Indeed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad did this when he pushed then President Obama’s chemical weapon “red line”, graduating to the eventual mass murder of civilians.

At a time when the decline of democracy across the African continent is being exacerbated, countries where the future of democracy can still be salvaged must be addressed. With a Council on Foreign Relations report identifying that, “More Africans live under fully or partially authoritarian states today than at most points in the last two decades”, the time to put an end to democratic backsliding in the Seychelles is now.

With authoritarian regimes, and particularly those dependent on foreign support and mindful of the need to maintain positive foreign opinion, the Seychelles is an optimal case study of a country where international organizations must be more active. The IMF is one such example, approving a 32-month extended arrangement for the Seychelles for US $105.63 million, or 323 percent of Seychelles’ quota only 6 months ago.

Non-contingent international aid is an extremely dangerous contributor to democratic backsliding. Conversely, if employed correctly, and as has been found in empirical research, conditional aid can have a powerful effect on ensuring democratic futures. The case at hand should be understood within this context.

As stated by Valabhji’s lawyer Frank Elizabeth “issues may seem petty, but they must be addressed in the utmost urgency as it seems the police does not seem to understand the human rights aspects of the case”. The obstruction of due process alleged by lawyers involved is unacceptable behavior by a country claiming to be a democracy.

Not adequately addressing these issues only gives the current government the reassurances it is looking for, namely that the violation of justice and democratic rights are acceptable. As long as you mask it under perceptions of a seemingly democratic nation and prolong due process, one can continue being the recipient of international largesse while trampling on the rights of its citizens, all the while ignoring the fact that as former Prime Minister William Gladstone so aptly put it, “Justice delayed is justice denied”.