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.