Signal Risk on Mauritius – Dictatorial drift?

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A police officer wears a mask at a check point in the Flacq district, Mauritius, on March 25, 2020. - Mauritius is under curfew since March 23, 2020 for 11 days to curb the COVID-19 coronavirus from spreading. (Photo by BEEKASH_ROOPUN / l'Express Maurice / AFP / AFP)

Officers from the Central Criminal Investigation Division (CCID) arrested former attorney general Jayarama Valayden from his Les Pailles residence shortly before 02:00 local time on 17 May. Valayden was subsequently questioned at the CCID’s Port Louis headquarters before being released at approximately 09:00 the same day.

According to CCID investigators, Valayden was arrested on two provisional charges related to unlawful assembly and violating the Quarantine Act 2020 (which currently prohibits public gatherings of more than ten people).

These provisional charges stem from a peaceful rally attended by approximately 100 people on 16 May outside the local municipality offices in Port Louis. The gathering had been organised by a local civic organisation, of which Valayden is the spokesperson, to express support for the Palestinian people and to call for peace in the current Middle East conflict. Several other activists, including local lawyer Shahzaad Mungroo, were also temporarily detained in connection with the march.

Dubious detention

Valayden’s detention prompted an immediate backlash from several sectors of society. In a 17 May communique entitled “Objectionable Police Practice”, the Mauritius Bar Association (MBA) criticised the arrest, stating that it saw no urgency or necessity in arresting Valayden at his residence. Instead, the MBA argued that it would have been more appropriate to have called the former attorney general in for questioning during business hours.

Opposition parties have gone further in their criticism, expressing concern that the arrests are indicative of Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth’s allegedly growing tendency to constrain opposition activity and dissent. On the morning of 17 May, Patrick Assirvaden, president of the Labour Party (to which Valayden belongs), stated that the CCID had acted as “the gestapo of Pravind Jugnauth”.

In a somewhat less incendiary tone, leader of the opposition in parliament, Xavier-Luc Duval, wrote to the Commissioner of Police requesting that he seek legal advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) prior to formalising the provisional charges against Valayden. As per Duval, this was necessary due to the “political nature of the arrests”, which could have “ramifications on national unity and law and order”.

For its part, the government has yet to respond directly to these allegations. However, in an 18 May media interview, Prime Minister Jugnauth did condemn the “irresponsible behaviour” of certain individuals who had violated public health regulations. The CCID summoned Valayden for a second round of questioning on 18 May and subsequently announced that it would drop the provisional charges against him and instead refer the matter to the DPP.

Social media suspicion

Valayden’s arrest is the most recent example of what government critics argue is the Jugnauth administration’s inclination to exercise greater control over the domestic political arena.

By way of example, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) were two of 60 organisations to sign on 12 May an open letter seeking to prevent amendments from being made to the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act or ICT Act.

The proposed amendments were published by the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (ICTA) in a consultation paper issued in April, and are touted as being critical in addressing the “abuse and misuse” of social media in Mauritius. In this regard, the draft legislation proposes the creation of two central government bodies: The National Digital Ethics Committee (NDEC) – to identify illegal and harmful content – and the Technical Enforcement Unit – to implement the technical enforcement measures as directed by the NDEC.

Despite the intended goals of the amendments, activists are concerned that the vague wording of the changes and the broad mandate ascribed to the proposed state agencies would represent a vast

 

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