Seychelles: Rights Concerns in High-Profile Case

Human Rights

(Johannesburg) – The authorities in Seychelles should ensure that the prosecution of a former presidential adviser and other defendants in a high-profile anticorruption case is free, fair, and impartial, Human Rights Watch said today.

The ongoing trial of five defendants for alleged illegal possession of firearms and conspiracy to commit terrorism started in July 2023. Allegations of procedural and other irregularities, which have persisted since the initial arrests of the defendants in November 2021, should be transparently and speedily investigated and addressed so they do not jeopardize the defendants’ right to a fair trial.

“The authorities should ensure that the judicial proceedings are conducted in line with the Seychelles constitution and international human rights laws,” said Ashwanee Budoo-Scholtz, deputy director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “Abusive and partial application in the enforcement of anticorruption and arms control laws, risks undermining the very rule of law they seek to enthrone.”

In November 2021, law enforcement authorities, including officials of the Anti-Corruption Commission of Seychelles, searched the home of Mukesh Valabhji and his wife, Laura Valabhji, and arrested both in connection with an allegedly missing US$50 million. The funds, a foreign aid donation from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2002, was to help the Government of Seychelles address its foreign exchange shortfalls and debts, including for importing essential commodities, like fuel and food.

Mukesh, then chief executive officer of the Seychelles Marketing Board and economic adviser to then-President France Albert René, was authorized by the president to sign the documentation and deposit the allegedly missing funds into a Marketing Board bank account.

The arrests and prosecution of the defendants, which include the wife of former president René, was widely touted as key progress toward ending impunity for corruption in the country. Media reports quoted the Anti-Corruption Commission officials as saying they opened the case in 2017 on then-President Danny Faure’s instruction, and that “there is nothing sinister about it or any ulterior motives.” Lawyers for the Valabhjis said, however, that former governments had said they had found no evidence of theft of the UAE funds. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify this information.

The authorities alleged that during the search at the Valabhji residence, agents discovered a cache of firearms and ammunition hidden behind basement walls. The couple’s lawyers said that these arms had been stored in their home for almost two decades with the authority of former President René.

The Attorney General’s office is separately prosecuting the Valabhjis, together with three former senior Seychelles army officers, for the importation and unlawful possession of the arms, and conspiracy to commit terrorism. According to the prosecution, Laura Valabhji was charged along with her husband on the assumption that she should have known about the presence of the arms in their home.

The Valabhjis’ lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the defendants have petitioned the United Nations’ working group on arbitrary detention, alleging that the government of Seychelles is depriving them of their right to liberty and a fair hearing, and has subjected them to abusive and degrading treatment in violation of international and Seychelles laws.

On June 1, 2023, the Supreme Court of Seychelles dismissed an application by the Valabhjis requesting the Chief Justice Rony Govinden to recuse himself from both trials on several grounds.

There have been several long adjournments in both cases, largely at the prosecution’s request. The defendants’ lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the prosecution has often introduced new witnesses at the last minute, and failed to disclose documents and information in time for the defendants to adequately prepare their defense. The lawyers said that the court brushed aside these concerns.

The trial court has refused the defendants’ multiple bail applications, as the Anticorruption Commission has dropped some charges and added others. The commission dropped the fraud charges against Laura Valabhji, but she is still detained and faces trial on the arms charges.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the attorney general on March 5 about these concerns but has not received a response.

The Constitution of Seychelles, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provide legal safeguards during judicial processes, including the right to trial in an impartial court, within a reasonable time, or to release defendants pending trial; the right to adequate time to prepare for defense; and the right to a legal counsel of choice. Pretrial detention should be an exception, not the rule, and the authorities should justify the necessity of their detention on an individual basis.

“The Seychelles authorities should ensure that legitimate anticorruption efforts are not mired by violations of the country’s international and domestic human rights obligations,” Budoo-Scholtz said. “They should take urgent steps to ensure prompt and fair trial of all defendants and, unless the prosecution can prove the necessity of detention, grant them temporary release with reasonable conditions during the trial.”

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