Blairs take on President Yameen as client

The Maldivian government has hired a law firm owned by Cherie Blair, the wife of UK’s former prime minister Tony Blair, to “strengthen the legislative framework of the government.”

In a joint press release today, the foreign ministry and the attorney general’s office said the hiring of London based Omnia Strategy LLP “underscores the government’s commitment to strengthen democratic institutions of the State and to promote a culture of respect for human rights in the Maldives, adhering to international norms, while retaining its unique character.”

The foreign ministry declined to reveal the cost and length of the contract or the details of Omnia Strategy’s work in the Maldives.

Omnia Strategy, which has recently opened an office in Washington DC, describes itself as a “pioneering international law firm that provides strategic counsel to governments, corporates and private clients.”

In addition to providing legal counsel, the company specializes in public relations.

The firm advises the governments of oil-rich Gabon and Kazakhstan. Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, was elected in 2009, after his father who ruled over the country for 42 years died in 2009.

The UK’s Telegraph in March 2014 said Blair employs around 50 staff with a yearly wage bill of over US$ 3.5 million.

The firm’s appointment comes amidst growing international criticism of the Maldives government over the imprisonment of politicians, including ex-president Mohamed Nasheed. The European Union parliament and US Senators John McCain and Jack Reed have called for Nasheed’s immediate release, while Canada on  Tuesday said the deteriorating rights situation in the Maldives must be discussed at the Commonwealth’s Ministerial Action Group (CMAG).

Nasheed has also appointed high-profile international lawyers consisting of Amal Clooney, founder of Freedom Now Jared Genser and UN rights chief on counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson.

Former President Mohamed Waheed employed Baroness Scotland for legal advice concerning the Maldives’ suspension from the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG).

State auditors discovered she was paid £50,000 without signing a formal agreement in addition to a consultancy fee of £75,000 (MVR 1.81 million) agreed upon in the ToR.

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom employed UK PR firm Hill and Knowlton during the pro-democracy protests of the mid 2000s and reportedly paid the firm US$ 800,000 in a three year period.


‘Hired for my looks’: HDC employee alleges sexual harassment

This article is by Farah Ahmed

A former employee at the state-owned Housing Development Corporation (HDC) has said she was subjected to sexual harassment by a senior staff who once allegedly told her she had been hired for her looks.

The employee, who had started work at the HDC’s legal department in March, said the company’s human resource manager Mirshan Ahmed had sent her inappropriate text messages and regularly commented on her clothes and her hair.

The harassment began the first week she started work.

“He once messaged me saying I should thank him for this job. He said he saw my picture on my application form and hired me because I looked so pretty.”

When she did not respond to his text messages, he allegedly threatened to muddy her work record.

“One of his messages said: “from now on I’ll only be there for you’. And when I didn’t respond, he sent a message saying ‘I’ll be bad to you only. I’ll put this on your profile’,” she told Minivan News.

“Maybe because I am a single mother, he once told me that I am a ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ deal.”

HDC deputy managing director Mohamed Shahid said the issue is under investigation and declined to comment further.

Newspapers Haveeru and Vaguthu have meanwhile said the Economic and Youth Council at the president’s office has tabled the issue and discussed penalties.

Mirshan was not available for comment at the time of going to press.

Inappropriate texts

When the female employee, who wished to remain anonymous, first complained to her colleagues about the harassment, she was advised to stay silent and warned she may lose her job.

However, other female employees soon began sharing their own experiences of harassment by Mirshan.

Some told her several had been fired before for raising the issue.

“Once, at a meeting with office staff, he told a woman who was about to sit, that she couldn’t fit in to the couch with her friend because her butt was too big – so it wasn’t just me who was being harassed. This has clearly been an on-going thing.”

She lodged a complaint with the senior management and an internal committee was set up to review her claim. But when her three-month probation expired on June 4, she was dismissed.

“I was told to go home. There were no formal letters at first. They told me my probation period was over and that I was just a replacement for someone who had to be moved to a different department – they didn’t tell me this when they employed me. Despite the harassment, I liked my job – I even told them I’d work for free.”

The committee has since decided to reinstate her job. But the HDC managing director Mohamed Simon has ignored the order, she alleged.

“When I finally got my termination letter, it said that they did not have the budget to keep an extra employee in my department and that’s why they were letting me go. I felt that I was being dismissed for personal reasons just because I actually spoke out about this,” she said.

She then sent an email from her work email account to all HDC employees with copes of her termination letter and chat-logs demonstrating Mirshan’s inappropriate comments.

HDC fired the assistant director of marketing and suspended an IT officer for “a security breach.”

Minivan News was not able to contact Simon at the time of going to press.

The parliament in May passed a law against sexual harassment, which mandates government offices to investigate complaints of workplace harassment within 60 days.

The review committee can warn, suspend or dismiss the perpetrator.

This article previously said an HDC assistant director of marketing was suspended for an alleged security breach. This is incorrect, he was dismissed.


Maldives and Canada in diplomatic spat

Foreign minister Dunya Maumoon has accused the Canadian government of hypocrisy after it called on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to place a deteriorating human rights situation in the Maldives on its formal agenda.

“Canada should address the cultural genocide it is alleged to have committed against native Canadians before trying to teach other nations about values of democratic principles and human rights,” Dunya said in a statement on Tuesday.

Canada has condemned the imprisonment of ex-president Mohamed Nasheed and police crackdown on several mass protests organized by the allied opposition parties.

In a statement on Tuesday, Canada said it supported the June 12 protest in which protesters called for the release of political prisoners, an independent judiciary, and respect for freedom of expression.

Dunya said Canada’s “selective application of [democratic] principles is a highly hypocritical approach to adopt” after a Canadian truth and reconciliation commission said rules that required Canadian aboriginals to attend state funded church schools was responsible for “cultural genocide.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a historic apology in parliament in 2008, acknowledging the physical and sexual abuse that took place in the schools.

Dunya said the Maldives welcomes constructive engagement and acknowledged that democratic principles, including accountability, is an obligation on all states.

“We would encourage Canada to show good faith and engage positively with the government,” she added.

The CMAG in 2012 suspended the Maldives and placed it on the body’s formal agenda over Nasheed’s ouster in 2012. A Commonwealth inquiry later concluded that the transfer of power was constitutional, but the opposition now says the inquiry was flawed.

Dunya in March slammed unnamed foreigners for working with local opposition politicians of pushing for CMAG action against the Maldives over Nasheed’s terrorism trial.

She has previously said Canadian statements on the ongoing political crisis are “blatantly untrue.”

The Maldives is grappling with increasing international criticism over the prosecution of opposition politicians. In addition to Nasheed, ex-defence minister Mohamed Nazim is also in jail over charges of weapons smuggling.

Rights organizations have said the trials lacked due process.

Earlier this month, Dunya criticised the EU, UK, Canada and US over tweets in which diplomats raised concern over fresh terrorism charges against three more opposition leaders.

The European parliament in April adopted a resolution condemning the “serious irregularities” of Nasheed’s terrorism trial while US secretary of state John Kerry said during a visit to Sri Lanka that Nasheed was “imprisoned without due process”.

“This is an injustice that needs to be addressed soon,” he said.

Last week, US senators John McCain and Jack Reed urged their government to press for the release of all political prisoners in the Maldives.

President Abdulla Yameen has called for separate talks with the three opposition parties. The Jumhooree Party has held two meetings with government representatives, but there has been no progress with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party and the religious conservative Adhaalath Party.

In October 2013, then-President Mohamed Waheed wrote a letter of complaint to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, accusing Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird of posing “several harshly worded questions… concerning domestic politics in the Maldives” during a CMAG meeting on September 27.


The Supreme Court’s ‘power grab’

The Supreme Court issued 11-point guideline dictating the human rights watchdog’s roles and responsibilities will force it to “work like a ministry or an extension of the government instead of an independent body,” a commission member who wished to remain anonymous has said.

The apex court yesterday declared a rights assessment submitted by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) as unlawful and barred the office from communicating with foreign organizations without government oversight.

The 11-point guideline also orders the HRCM to protect unity, peace and order, and uphold Maldivian norms, faith, etiquette and the rule of law.

The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), civil society organizations and lawyers have also said the guideline undermines the commission’s independence, and have said the Supreme Court has infringed on the parliament’s mandate by “writing laws” for the HRCM.

The MDP noted the ruling was issued under controversial suo-moto regulations that allow the Supreme Court to prosecute and pass judgment.

“While the guardian of independent institutions is the parliament, the Supreme Court created a guideline and gave the verdict on charges the court itself brought against the HRCM, we note with concern that this verdict allows an independent institution created by the constitution to lose its independence,” the MDP said in a statement today.

Charges of treason were first pressed in September 2014 after the HRCM publicized a report it had submitted to the UN human rights council for the Maldives’ Universal Periodic Review.

Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed said the report was biased, encouraged terrorists and undermined judicial independence in the Maldives.

MDP MP Imthiyaz Fahmy said: “This is very concerning; this whole case was based on threatening an independent institution with unconstitutional charges because the commission fulfilled its constitutional and international obligations.”

Only the parliament can formulate guidelines for the state’s offices, he said. The guideline will bar the HRCM from investigating human rights violations without state approval as it requires the commission to cooperate with government offices and orders the HRCM not to overstep its mandate or “disrupt” the work of government offices.

Mohamed Thoriq Hamid, the program manager of advocacy NGO Transparency Maldives, said the verdict is part of “a continuing trend” in which the Supreme Court is undermining the work of the state’s independent institutions.

In March last year, the apex court sacked the Election Commission’s president and vice-president when they criticised a 16-point electoral guideline issued by the Supreme Court after annulling the first round of presidential elections in September 2013.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the Anti-Corruption Commission was not authorized to suspend contracts even if they suspected corruption. The ACC president Hassan Luthfee at the time said the ruling rendered the ACC powerless to stop corruption even if it was carried out on a large scale.

Shahindha Ismail. the executive director of Maldivian Democracy Network, said the Supreme Court is “imposing more serious problems” on HRCM rather than “allying with the commission to overcome existing challenges”.

“This verdict just destroys all the work done for the promotion of democratic principles and the protection of Human Rights all over the world,” she added.

A lawyer who wished to remain anonymous said the Supreme Court’s verdict was an “unconstitutional power grab.”

“What we see in other democratic countries is judicial activism, but this case shows that what is going on here is judicial extremism,” he said.

The guideline has sparked outrage on Twitter.

The former speaker of Majlis, MP Abdulla Shahid said: “Another sad and horrifyingly wicked day for democracy and Human Rights in the Maldives.”


Underage murder suspect transferred to house arrest

The juvenile court has transferred a suspect in the murder of 19-year-old Ahmed Aseel to house arrest after the minor’s family said he has depression.

The court had previously ordered the minor to be kept in police custody until the murder trial ends.

The minor’s family submitted documents to prove he has depression, local media said.

Aseel was attacked in Malé in August last year and died as a result of his injuries. He was stabbed near Iskandhar School in the Machangolhi ward of the the capital on August 23 along with two others – aged 20 and 13-years-old – whose injuries were not critical.

Doctors had removed Aseel’s right leg in an attempt to save his life after he was stabbed six times.

Eyewitnesses said a group of masked men stabbed the two men in the back and struck the minor on the head before fleeing on motorbikes.

Some eight suspects, including two minors, have been charged over the murder.



Sacked TVM reporter to be reinstated

The employment tribunal has ordered the state TV to reinstate a reporter who was sacked unlawfully in February and ordered a payout of MVR 100,800 ($6536) as compensation.

Nasrulla Haadhy, a long time employee of Television Maldives (TVM), was dismissed when he refused a transfer to a bureau in southern Addu City.

“I was sent to the Addu City bureau, but there was no office there. They also did not give me food and salary allowances that were provided to others who worked out of Male’ City. Their reason was that my wife is from Addu City. I refused, and then they dismissed me,” he said.

Nasrulla now works at privately-owned Channel 13.

“I intend to return to the job. I worked there because I loved to work there and I have no problem with the management. I just disagreed with two people from the senior management,” he said.

In March, a TV Anchor Ali Shamin was dismissed from TVM after he alleged the station was biased in its coverage of political unrest triggered by the jailing of ex-president Mohamed Nasheed.

A senior journalist Mohamed Afsal was demoted in the same month after he criticized the criminal court for refusing to let journalists leave the court premises during a break in between hearings in Nasheed’s terrorism trial.

Minivan News understands Afsal was reinstated to his former position when he threatened to file charges at the Employment Tribunal.

The government in April seized control of the state TV and radio stations after dissolving the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation through a new law.

Ruling party MPs appointed five members proposed by President Abdulla Yameen to the new Public Service Media (PSM) board without interviewing them.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called a move an attack on press freedom and described the PSM as a “state mouthpiece.”

Umar Manik, the chairman of the former board, was the only incumbent who was appointed to the new board.

Staff at the PSM have long complained of favoritism and lack of independence in successive governments.

Some staff who spoke to Minivan News today said the new board had promised changes.

“We have always complained about favoritism and discrimination. The new board promised change but it is still the same,” a female reporter who wished to remain anonymous said.

Another senior journalist, however, said some journalists who were deliberately left without work are now included.

“The new board has included those who were isolated over disputes and is encouraging us to work together,” he said.


MP Mahloof questioned over June 12 sit-in

Opposition MP Ahmed Mahloof was summoned today to the police headquarters for questioning over a sit-in organized by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on June 12.

Police arrested Mahloof at 3:30am on June 13 from Majeedhee Magu, but he was released by the criminal court the following day. He was was accused of obstructing police duty.

The opposition is protesting over the imprisonment of ex-president Mohamed Nasheed and ex-defence minister Mohamed Nazim. Some 2000 people took part in the June 12 sit-in.

Mahloof was not available for comment at the time of going to press.

A police spokesperson said Mahloof was summoned to police over an ongoing investigation, but declined to comment further.

A total of 12 people were arrested in the early hours of the morning, but were all released by the criminal court.

The police cracked down on the protest after protesters refused a police order to stop using megaphone and go home by midnight.


Gasim to retire from politics

The leader of the opposition Jumhooree Party (JP) Gasim Ibrahim has announced he will retire from politics once his five-year term as Maamigili MP expires in 2019.

The philanthropist and tourism tycoon, who contested the 2008 and 2013 presidential polls, told newspaper Haveeru today that he plans to resign as the JP leader. He also said he no longer wants to run for the presidency.

“My experiences of the two [presidential] elections I’ve contested are clear. It has damaged my businesses. Now I want to step down and serve the people. There is a lot I can do to serve. I have served many people for the sake of humanity,” he said.

Gasim’s announcement comes weeks after the government slapped a US$90.4million fine on his Villa Group and froze the accounts of several subsidiary companies.

The claim was issued after the JP split from the ruling coalition and allied with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in a campaign against President Abdulla Yameen’s alleged authoritarianism.

The JP is meanwhile in disarray with two senior officials facing terrorism charges.

Gasim is in Germany at present, Haveeru said. He has been abroad since late April. In a tweet in May, he said he was in Thailand.

Party over

Gasim on Tuesday also appealed to the 10-member JP parliamentary group to support a ruling coalition-proposed constitutional amendment that would bar him from the presidency.

“The JP’s constitution states the leader of the party is its presidential candidate. I fill that position today. But with my decision to support that [the constitutional amendment] I cannot hold that position. So I will hold a congress and hand over the leadership to someone else,” he said.

The ruling coalition wants to set an age limit of 30 to 65 years for the presidency. The constitution at present says that presidential candidates must be 35 years of age.

Gasim will be 66 in 2018.

The MP said he would not abandon the party even if he stepped down from its leadership. “This is a party of 30,000 members. I do not want to destroy the Jumhooree Party. So I will settle the party debts to zero and hand over to a new leadership.”

The JP is currently the only opposition party in talks with the government.

The JP’s last-minute backing was key in President Yameen’s 2013 presidential win. The ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) and the JP formed a coalition government, but tensions arose within months after JP accused the ruling party of failure to honor provisions in the coalition agreement including awarding JP members’ jobs.

Gasim had also backed ex-president Mohamed Nasheed in 2008 against the president of 30 years, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

The JP and Nasheed’s MDP had formed a coalition with several smaller parties, but the coalition, too, fell apart within its 100 days. Gasim went on to play a key role in Nasheed’s 2012 ouster.

Economic sanctions

According to Haveeru, Gasim is in Frankfurt to save his ailing company.

The Villa Group – which operates businesses in shipping, import and export, retail, tourism, fishing, media, communications, transport and education – has faced difficulties in paying its 5000 staff due to the tax authority’s decision to freeze company accounts.

The Villa Group is contesting the US$90.4million claim at the civil court.

The claim has cost the company a US$80million loan, Villa has said.

“We are in dire straits, unable to pay salaries. With the accounts freeze, we are facing difficulties in sending money to students we provide scholarships for. Tourism occupancy is also very low. So I am looking for ways to improve the company’s financial situation,” Gasim said.

The Villa Foundation is currently supporting some 350 students’ higher education in the Maldives and abroad. The foundation says it has provided some 5000 students with full or partial scholarships.

Since the tax authority issued the US$90.4million claim, Gasim has not been seen at opposition protests and has remained silent on the ongoing political crisis triggered by the jailing of several politicians including Nasheed.

MPs and senior officials of the JP, however, went on to form a new coalition with the MDP and the religious conservative Adhaalath Party in March.

Gasim served as Minister of Finance from 2005 – 2008 and served as the Speaker of the special parliament set up to draft the Maldives’ new constitution in 2008.