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.