Judge Didi's open investigation: A hearing or a debate?

The Judicial Service Commission (JSC)'s decision to raise a disciplinary case against a judge, and to proceed with an open hearing for the case is a first in its history. The landmark decision garnered the attention of the country, with the public closely following the developments of the case. While the hearing was broadcast live on national TV, all eyes and ears were fixated on the proceedings taking place at Rannabandeyri Maalam of Dharubaaruge Convention Center this Thursday.

The 'hearing' took an interesting turn of events when serious allegations made against Judge Abdulla Didi of the Supreme Court came to light, with the hearing progressing rather unexpectedly into a heated legal debate.

Judge Didi was initially suspended after Speaker of the Parliament Mohamed Nasheed filed a complaint at the JSC alleging that the Judge had accepted a bribe of US$ 1 million to jail Nasheed on terror charges back in 2015. At the time, the Judge was on the Criminal Court bench that put Nasheed away.

However, the judge is now also being accused of involvement in the MMPRC graft scandal, and is also said to be linked to the disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan.

MVR 1.22 billion of state funds were embezzled through Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Company (MMPRC) during former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayyoom's presidency. During the hearing, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) publicized two letters sent to the commission by Maldives Police Service, one of which linked Didi to the graft.

One of the letters stated that the police are aware that part of the funds received as acquisition cost of uninhabited islands through MMPRC and subsequently laundered were received by the Judge on multiple occasions while he was a judge.

When the investigating committee comprising of five JSC members inquired regarding Didi's interaction with 'Suspect no. 1', who is said to be the Judge's contact in acquiring the embezzled funds, Judge Didi's legal team fired back noting several pieces of information that seem to have been overlooked.

Part of his legal team is Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, former Vice President of the Maldives and former Justice Minister, and a judge himself at some point in his career. The first point noted by Jameel was Judge Didi's suspension - Jameel referred to laws and rules to point out that Judge Didi was suspended in violation of due process.

However, the committee made the decision not to accept the points raised by Jameel regarding Didi's suspension. Chairing the committee was the President's representative to JSC Masthoor Husnee, who stated that the day's hearing was not an appeal hearing for Didi's suspension, but an investigation to identify if disciplinary action against the judge must be pursued.

With the ongoing debate on his suspension, a lot of time passed with the committee trying to coerce an answer regarding a question out of Didi. This fact did not go unnoticed by parliament member to the commission Hisaan Hussain and Attorney General Ibrahim Riffath, who made note of the delay in providing an answer multiple times.

The debate on the difference between a criminal issue and a disciplinary issue

The main reason that the hearing could not be proceeded as the committee wished was due to the fact that Judge Didi was not granted adequate time to respond to the documents submitted against him as evidence. Didi, and his legal team raised the issue several times.

Didi stated that the five confidential letters sent by the police to the judicial watchdog was shown to him after he arrived at Dharubaaruge for the investigation hearing. He questioned how he could answer questions based on the documents without verifying its authenticity.

Experienced attorney on Didi's legal team Mohamed 'Reynis' Saleem also supported this point and continued to assert that additional time must be granted to study the documents.

While the investigating committee members continued to insist that the hearing was not a criminal investigation, the purpose of the investigation was to determine if the accusations against Judge Didi resulted in any disciplinary misdemeanors. The committee repeatedly urged Didi to answer the commission's questions, however, instead of complying, his legal team continued to raise procedural issues.

While Jameel pointed out that there are certain procedures clearly stated in the laws that are to be followed during the investigating stage, the former Deputy Prosecutor General Hussain Shameem was of the opinion that Didi's legal team was unable to differentiate between a disciplinary investigation and a criminal investigation.

"This is not a court hearing. This is an investigation into a disciplinary issue. I do not believe time should be granted to respond during the investigative stage', said Shameem.

Shameem went on to say that although the accused is to be granted a period of at least five days to prepare, criminal procedural laws do not state that such a period must be granted during the investigation process.

Shameem also noted that there is a drastic difference between criminal investigations and disciplinary investigations.

"The criteria for both are very different. The criteria to deem an action as a disciplinary issue is considerably smaller than that is necessary to determine a criminal issue. Even if a disciplinary issue is identified, a criminal issue may not be absolute. However, if a criminal issue is identified, there would be no need to prove a disciplinary issue", Shameem detailed.

The committee sought to verify if Didi's phone number was used to text a person of interest to acquire the said MMPRC funds. According to Shameem's opinion, in this case, the authenticity of the messages do not need to be verified to answer the committee's question.

"A judge sending such text messages is a disciplinary issue, is it not? If the action is of criminal nature, this is another separate matter", he said.

A personal vendetta

Jameel said the disciplinary issue being pursued against Judge Didi has no legal merit.

"The way I see it, the whole issue is an excuse for a politician to exact revenge on the judge. Whatever happens next, two things became clear during today's session: no criminal investigations involving the judge in question has taken place officially, at least not according to the law", said Jameel speaking to AVAS.

Jameel further said while an investigation was earlier conducted on the MMPRC scandal two years ago, the full report on its findings have been publicized. While Didi's name has not been associated with the embezzlement until now, the report, which named several high profile businessmen, companies and money exchange depots, and even entities involved in the exchange of the funds. Judge Didi's name was not previously linked to the scandal in any way.

"I find it most concerning that the person who is said to be the mastermind behind the MMPRC scandal is now seen as innocent of his crimes. Out of the blue, JSC suspended Didi over a complaint filed by the Speaker of the parliament, and a press conference that followed. It was only after suspending Didi that they even began their investigation. Therefore, this whole charade is being orchestrated by taking advantage of their majority, in violation to the JSC Act and international guidelines on dealing with such matters", said Jameel.

JSC was unable execute their investigation on the Supreme Court judge properly during the open hearing. As requested by Didi's legal team, the committee has now grated five days for Judge Didi to respond to the accusations against him in writing. Further hearings will be scheduled based on the Judge's response to his allegations. At this point, the whole country is holding its breath, patiently anticipating round two of the heated debate of an 'investigative' hearing.