MALE, MALDIVES - A highly contested case, Ahmed Azaan vs Information Commissioner's Office, took the center stage at the Maldives High Court today, as the ongoing dispute surrounding the transparency of Indian military presence in the Maldives intensified. Ahmed Azaan, a journalist for the Maldives Journal, is confronting the state's refusal to disclose the number of Indian soldiers currently stationed in the archipelago, causing fervent public discussions.
This legal tussle was born out of an information request by Azaan to the Defence Ministry in 2020. Seeking transparency, he aimed to clarify the quantity of Indian military personnel in the Maldives. However, his request met a wall of silence when both the Defence Ministry and subsequently, the Information Commissioner's office, sided against the disclosure. Undeterred, Azaan escalated his appeal to the High Court.
In a new development, the Defence Ministry has also now stepped into the legal fray, fielding representation from lawyers attached to the Attorney General's Office of the Maldives.
In the latest hearing, the state's lawyers presented a firm rebuttal to Azaan's appeal. Central to their argument was the potential jeopardization of Maldivian national security if the number of Indian military personnel was unveiled. They warned of potential international implications and adverse reactions. “Maldives is a small country and we rely on other countries for basic goods. If this information is made public, it will result in a disruption of the supply of staple food to the Maldives,” they cautioned. Furthermore, they hypothesized that if the Indian military presence were revealed, other countries might also seek to establish a similar military presence in the Maldives, leading to possible unrest and disorder.
Notably, these statements were prepared during the tenure of the former Information Commissioner, Mr. Hussain Fiyaz, who currently leads a government-backed news outlet in the Maldives. Attorneys from the Attorney General's office have endorsed these arguments, urging the court to suppress the information.
In defense, Azaan dissected and addressed the points raised by the state. His retort underlined the state's failure to substantiate how revealing the number of Indian soldiers would jeopardize national security. He dismissed the argument that other nations would want to match the Indian military presence as baseless, pointing out that despite the known presence of Indian soldiers, no other country has requested to station their military here. Azaan further argued that the national defense mandate of the Maldivian National Defence Force would ensure national security, regardless of the disclosure.
Azaan went on to question the state's logic, referencing the previous statement by the Chief of Defence Force Major General Abdullah Shamal, who categorized the Indian soldiers as humanitarian workers. “How would revealing information about humanitarian workers result in a threat to national security?” Azaan challenged.
The court adjourned after posing several questions to the state lawyers, declaring that the verdict would be reached after one additional hearing. As the debate rages on, it's clear that the issue of Indian military presence and its undisclosed magnitude continues to stir waves of speculation and concern across the Maldives.