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Justice Politics Uncategorized

Ronny Govinden Continues To Enrich Himself At Everyone’s Expense

Corruption in countries like the Seychelles has become something which people unfortunately accept as a given. When there is little oversight, those that are in power take advantage. That doesn’t make it okay but it is expected. What people don’t anticipate is the extent to which those in power will go in order to shamelessly promote their own interests at the peoples’ expense.

Such was the case in a recent expose published by The People, according to which Chief Justice of the Seychelles Supreme Court Ronny Govinden, took advantage of his position of power and proximity to the Seychelles leadership in order to acquire for himself a property portfolio unrivalled by many in the country.

At first glance there is nothing wrong with acquiring properties. If you have the money and would like to invest in an extensive property portfolio, then of course it is your right. A problem arises however, when the price paid for the property is significantly below market value, raising questions regarding the conditions under which it is acquired.

Accusations have been levied according to which a series of parcels of government land were acquired by the Chief Justice at below market costs. Most recent was piece of government land (H8312) measuring 995 square meters that was acquired on April 6th 2022. Unlike the other land, which he reportedly procured on questionable terms, this parcel saw records leaked pointing fingers directly at the current government of Wavel Ramkalawan. It is important to remember that Ronny Govinden, over the course of the past more than a decade has always been in an official position of power in the Seychellois justice system, currently a Chief Justice and previously as Chief Prosecutor and Attorney. One might expect a member of the judiciary to hold himself to higher standards, however this does not appear to be the case with Ronny Govinden.

The corruption in relation to this most recent acquisition is all too apparent, having paid only SR 122,800 for a plot easily valued at SR1.2 million. It looks like the position of Chief Justice comes with the added benefit of being able to purchase state land at 1/10 of the price. Had he kept the land for himself and built a home we might have been able to excuse this and look the other way. A man who gave his whole life to the justice system may be entitled to certain benefits although it’s not clear why buying multiple parcels of land would be necessary.

Govinden’s greed unfortunately knows no boundaries and prior to his acquisition of the most recent piece of land in April of this year, the Chief Justice sold all of his shares in his other properties to his former spouse for SR4.5 million. This means not only did he acquire land at an undervalued price in his capacity as an official of state, something which very obviously screams corruption, but he also enriched himself with the help of these properties.

The Minister for Lands & Housing, Billy Rangasamy, has been providing excuses for Ronny Govinden, saying that the sale of the land at far below market-price was approved on “compassionate grounds”. Specifically, this was due to Ronny Govinden’s sale of all his previous land to his ex-wife following their divorce. However, getting divorced and subsequent sympathy is not a good enough reason to approve the sale of government land to a public servant at such a discount, especially considering his ownership of quite a few other properties which he similarly purchased at below market terms.

If the government will do anything to concretely address this corruption is doubtful. This is simply one of surely many cases of corruption that was uncovered by investigative journalists. If anything, we can anticipate that this expose will simply encourage those in power to cover their tracks better. Regardless, we will continue to investigate and expose such instances of corruption because without clean and trustworthy government, the future of any country is doomed.

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Economy Politics Uncategorized

Colonial Legacies Continue To Build The Modern British State

The nostalgia with which many reflect on Britain’s colonial legacies is not surprising. Tony Blair famously stated in a 1997 speech, “I value and honour our history enormously,” and that the country’s history of empire should be the cause of “neither apology nor hand-wringing”. The post-Brexit world has only encouraged this sentiment, which seeks to reinvigorate the spirit which once allowed Britain to rule more than half the world.

Although the empire that is seen by many as a product of the British state, an often overlooked aspect of Britain’s successful domination of the globe is the role of laissez-faire capitalism, outsourcing and public-private partnerships. The most well-known of these in the British context was the English East India Company, which by 1800 commanded a force larger than that of England. Ruling approximately one fifth of the world, philosopher Edmund Burke famously referred to this as, “a state in the disguise of a merchant”.

While Britain continues to focus on its post-colonial narrative, tearing down or renaming close to 70 statues of slave traders and colonialists across the country, colonialism in a different guise perseveres. Identified quite accurately as an, “incomplete process of British decolonisation” by University of London law lecturer Kojo Koram when discussing his new book, ‘Uncommon Wealth: Britain and The Aftermath of Empire’, Koram expressed how colonialism continues to inform both symbolic issues, such as monuments in public spaces, as well as more practical concerns.

Building an empire was after all, in its essences, a material project aimed at extracting resources and supporting the Empire’s foreign policy concerns. In this regard, not only is decolonization incomplete, it is being promoted in a different guise in ostensibly now independent locales employing private public partnerships. This can be seen quite prominently in the Seychelles Islands, in the role that British Queen’s Counsels have been playing in the country’s justice system.

Only becoming an independent republic within the Commonwealth of Nations in 1976, the Seychelles has remained particularly reliant on its former colonial overlords. This has become especially apparent throughout the course of an ongoing, and extremely questionable corruption trial, which has been functionally led in its entirety by British barristers and investigators. Employing KC’s Steven Powles and Edmund Vickers to lead the prosecution, the two have been responsible for overseeing the prosecution of nine arrested for a mix of allegations. Patrick Humphrey a former British police officer was tasked with leading the investigative side of the case.

Despite the involvement of internationally recognized criminal lawyers with an expertise in human rights, allegations of human rights violations have run rife. Concerns have been raised regarding impartiality, intimidation tactics have been leveraged against the defense and unconventional legal mechanisms, such as changing laws ex post facto to facilitate retroactive prosecution have been employed. All this, coupled with accusations that the case is essentially a politically motivated one, used by the incumbent President Wavel Ramkalawan to rid the country of supporters of the former government has raised more than a few alarms.

One would expect a seasoned former police officer as senior as Humphrey to ask more than a few questions regarding the methods employed to investigate the case as well as the nature of evidence found. This has included weapons, which to date cannot be conclusively tied to the suspects having any wrongdoing. Shockingly, British High Commissioner Patrick Lynch has not expressed any concern over the involvement of British lawyers in the case. This is despite regular comments by the High Commissioner commending UK-Seychellois cooperation on issues like police reform and tackling serious crime.

EU Ambassador Vincent Degert has similarly been noticeably silent. This is despite the instrumental role which the EU has played in funding ACCS anti-corruption efforts, and the role which EU ambassadors are expected to play in ensuring things such as freedom of the press and human rights. This is even more the case when EU funding is being directly allocated towards state bodies that act in stark contravention of international human rights standards.

Although their focus should be on addressing issues of democratic backsliding, these international experts have been recruited to the government’s ranks to lead the prosecution. Naturally, the support of international professionals are instrumental for establishing the legitimacy needed for the ongoing miscarriage of justice to go on unimpeded. When such actions are placed within the context of colonial history, it becomes apparent that they are in good company.

Colonial lawyers played a central role in propping up despotic local regimes that were deemed friendly to British foreign interests in the days of the Empire. Take the story of Sir Frank Clement Offley Beaman as a prime example. Educated at The Queen’s College, Oxford, he became a judicial advisor to the Indian Civil Service in 1879 working his way up over the course of the subsequent 28 years to High Court Judge, a position to which he was appointed in 1907. His position attained was a product of the relationship he established with the local government and the way in which he used legal tools in support of both the caste system and opposing women’s emancipation.

A similar example is evident in the case of Mr Dinsha Davar. A London educated barrister, Davar was a member of the same Middle Temple Inn of Court as Mr Powles and Mr Vickers, an Inn which seems to have a sordid history of members supporting neo-colonial endeavors. Davar saw the opportunity to be appointed a high court judge and having become close with the Maharaja of Baroda State, Sayajirao Gaekwad III, fervently employed the law to fight political enemies of the Maharaja, famously sentencing Indian nationalist and anti-colonial activist Bal Gangadhar Tilak to six years of hard labour.

It is unclear if the motivation of Mr Powles, Mr Vickers and Mr Humphrey are monetary, securing longer term local positions of power, as is widely (albeit controversially) practiced to this day in former colonies such as Hong Kong, or a combination of the two. Irrespective of their personal interest, British colonial legacies continue to shape the future of the Seychelles justice system and not for the better. A state in the grips of neo-colonialism can never be the master of its own destiny.

Categories
Justice Politics Transparency Uncategorized

Seychelles’s House of Cards is Beginning to Crumble

Factual errors continue to riddle one of the most high-profile cases Seychelles has ever seen. In an exclusive report, on the basis of confidential information overheard in the halls of the Seychelles Ministry of Justice in Victoria, more questions are unfortunately raised than answer. One thing is certain however, and that is that the prosecution in the case of the “missing 50 million US dollars” have not been completely upfront with the public, and their own evidence proves it.

For those unfamiliar, the saga begins with 50 million dollars donated by the government of the United Arab Emirates to Seychelles at a time when it was struggling to keep on the lights. Faced with a financial crisis in 2002, the money was meant to help pay outstanding balances to major creditors. In a surprising twist, allegations were raised that the funds were misappropriated; several government investigations occurred over the years, but no arrests were made until after the election of Wavel Ramkalawan in 2020, alongside his Vice President Ahmed Afif who himself had been previously implicated in having a role in the money’s disappearance. However, it’s important to note that all previous investigations did not point fingers to any of the current accused or held that there was no evidence the money was mishandled; Ahmed Afif has not been one of the nine Seychellois arrested.

As one of his first acts in office, President Wavel Ramkalawan decided to arrest nine people whom he and those leading the prosecution, the Anti-Corruption Commission of Seychelles, decided had misappropriated the money. The entire case had been premised on the fact that the funds, which were held in an account belonging to a government entity, the Seychelles Marketing Board (SMB), at the Bank of Baroda in London were allegedly transferred out to unknown accounts & subsequently pilfered, either through unauthorized expenses or someone stealing the money.

Now, personal accounts which have been exclusively obtained and whose authenticity have been corroborated beyond a shadow of a doubt, paint a picture which is significantly different. As was noted, the donation was meant to assist Seychelles in purchasing food, paying for electricity as well as making payments to creditors who were owed money.

According to insider information conveyed by concerned citizens working at the Ministry of Justice, who were able to provide confirmation that documents they had seen, including the financial evidence discovered by the ACCS, indicated that funds were not embezzled or misused. Rather, for example, on the 24 October 2002 a transfer of $6 million dollars was initiated to the Dutch Bank ABN AMRO. Cross referencing communications obtained by the ACCS between the late President France Albert Rene, who requested the donation, with His Highness of the UAE Sheikh Khalifa, who provided the funding, shows that President Rene listed debts at ABN AMRO as part of the usage that was going to be made of the donation; our insiders have also corroborated this.

Another clear example of funds that, despite allegations, were not misappropriated, was a $5 million dollar payment to the Malaysian petroleum company Petronas. Again, if we were to cross reference the initial request for funds from the former President Rene to the leadership of the UAE with the transfer initiated, we would find that this was actually described as one of the reasons the initial donation was needed, making the payment completely legal and within the scope of what the donated monies were meant to be used for.

Information from government sources have also given indication that proof has been found that the funds were actually transferred to the SMB’s own declared accounts, all known to the Seychelles government. For instance, 15 October 2002 saw $6.8 million dollars transferred to Nouvobanq, where we know from the publicly available COSPROH report that the SMB had a number of accounts which were routinely used for government business, including the repayment of creditors & debts. Quite simply, it seems like a lion’s share of the financial evidence obtained by the ACCS actually works against the Seychelles government’s case.

The government and prosecutors know this and, according to confidential conversations had, they have been panicking for some time. Although some of the defendants have been coerced into cooperation and made bail and others have had their charges dropped, others have been held for months on end in conditions that don’t comply with any legal system. International lawyers already filed complaints of intimidation and human rights violations, all of which have been ignored by the government. But filing a case which has been ongoing for 9 months on the basis of accusations which, quite frankly, are inaccurate is a severe problem and can bring this entire house of cards tumbling down.

Lies are like cockroaches; for every one you find, there are many many more hidden. The last thing this case can afford is any more lies coming to light. The government and prosecution can be sure they will. People are becoming more and more concerned with the absurd miscarriage of justice and political trial currently taking place in Seychelles. The time to put an end to this is now.

Categories
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”. 

Categories
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 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”.

Categories
Economy Politics Transparency

Something Smells Fishy!

The Seychelles Tuna Fishing Scam

Huge, industrial fishing vessels operate in the Seychelles national waters yearly, looking for a fish known as “blue gold”: tuna. The most sought-after tuna is the yellow fin tuna, but fishers also catch big-eye tuna, skipjack tuna, and swordfish – all of which turn a healthy profit in the international market.

Undeniably, the fishing industry fortifies the Seychelles’ economy. In 2019, the small East African archipelago nation exported about 6,600 metric tons of fish and crustaceans, which brought more than $13 million into the country, according to a local news report. Fisheries is the second most important sector after tourism in the Seychelles, contributing to 20% of the GDP and employing 17% of the population, according to the World Bank. Yet conservationists have long been sounding the alarm that fish stocks, particularly yellow fin tuna (Thunnus albacares), are over harvested.

To address over fishing, the Seychelles decided in 2017 to join the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI), an enterprise born out of global discussions about how to deal with illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the waters around Africa, particularly by commercial fleets operated by foreign nations.

Philippe Michaud, a consultant at the Seychelles’ ministry of fisheries, said the country joined FiTI because doing so aligned with the government’s implementation of the “Blue Economy,” a national initiative focused on making fishing and other ocean-related activities more sustainable.

According to Michaud, “I think FiTI should contribute in making people more aware of the problems, because we’re not running out of fish, because we can buy fish every day, we think that it’s going to go on forever. So, we need to mobilize all the different stakeholders and say, ‘This is a problem.’”

In December 2021, the Seychelles released its second report to FiTI, which detailed the government’s efforts to increase public access to certain information about the management and direction of its fisheries. This includes an online registry of large-scale fishing vessels operating in Seychelles waters, and information about what they need to pay to cast their nets and lines in these waters.

While the waters surrounding the Seychelles yield prolific catches, a lot of this fish isn’t being caught by Seychellois themselves, but by fishers from places like China, Taiwan and member states of the European Union.

One of the most contentious issues facing the Seychelles is the overfishing of Indian Ocean yellow fin tuna, which some experts say is being driven by EU-controlled vessels operating under Seychellois flags. According to a Mongabay investigation conducted last year, the Seychelles’ entire purse seine fleet — that is, vessels that use circular, wall-like netting to trap species like tuna — was fully controlled by European interests.

The Seychelles’ second annual report submitted to FiTI, which covers 2020, shows efforts made by the government to increase transparency around many aspects of its fisheries, including its foreign interests. For instance, the government has now published summaries of the license agreements for local and foreign fishers on the Seychelles Fishing Authority’s website.

Although this move seemingly towards transparency should be positive, there are limitations to the information in these reports. For instance, to date nothing has been revealed about how these agreements are negotiated with the EU; the entire industry rests on hidden agreements between the Ramkalawan government & EU member states. Additionally, the Ramkalawan government has attempted to explain away this lack of transparency under the nebulous guise of ‘national security’.

Yet the report shows it isn’t just the EU putting pressure on the Seychelles’ fisheries — it’s also vessels from Taiwan and China. Last year, the Seychelles government published a registry of the 180 large-scale vessels authorized to fish in the country’s EEZ; 66 of them operated under the Taiwanese flag, while eight operated under the Chinese flag. The report also notes that some agreements between the Seychelles and Taiwanese and Chinese fishing interests have not been published due to confidentiality clauses. There’s also insufficient data regarding ​​catches, landings, transhipments, discards, and fishing efforts for the industrial longline fleet, which is largely operated by vessels from Taiwan and China.

What this boils down to is that opaque foreign interests are making huge amounts of profit from Seychellois waters, permitted & facilitated by the government. Why all the secrecy?

The only logical conclusion is that political forces are profiting from these contracts via kickbacks or other underhanded payments. If this wasn’t the case – why has the government in Victoria gone through the motions of window-dressing, presenting reports touting ‘increased transparency’ while at the same time blocking the release of the most critical records.

Something smells fishy in Seychelles.