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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.

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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.

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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”.