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.