Attorney General (AG) Azima Shukoor has said the Maldives government could opt to seek compensation from infrastructure group GMR after it decided to void the India-based company’s concession agreement to develop Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA), according to local media.
GMR last week confirmed that it was seeking an estimated US$800 million in compensation in order to recover what it has claimed are investment and earnings after the government “wrongfully” terminated its contract.
In a press conference held yesterday (December 17), the attorney general maintained the government’s belief that the agreement with GMR to develop INIA was illegal. She added that the government therefore intended to seek compensation for damages it “might” have incurred during the process of entering into the contract with GMR, local newspaper Haveeru reported. The contract was signed during the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed.
Highlighting the pending arbitration process in Singapore Court between the government and GMR, Shukoor said that efforts were being made to appoint arbitrators for the hearings. She added that the government and Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) had appointed a “member” of Singapore National University as their arbitrator.
Similarly, GMR will also be given a 30-day period to appoint an arbitrator on its behalf.
Shukoor suggested during the yesterday’s press conference that it may take a period of one year until the due procedures were completed before a decision was made in the courts.
“It will take about two months time to appoint the panel to overhear the arbitration case. After that, parties will exchange documents and affidavits and respond to it and only after that a proper hearing on the matter will be held and might take up a period of one year,” she suggested.
Indian media reported last week that GMR had sent a letter to the Finance Ministry stating that it would seek compensation worth US$800 million. Shukoor denied such a communication had been sent, adding that she did not believe such a demand could even be made.
“We terminated the agreement on the grounds of void ab initio (void from the outset) , therefore we will begin the negotiation on the position that the government of Maldives do not require to pay back anything,” Shukoor explained.
However, she admitted that owing to the size of GMR’s investment, there remained a possibility that government might have to pay some amount that would be determined through the arbitration process.
“Even if we do require paying back as compensation, it would be based on the decisions reached during the arbitration process. If it is settled out of court, then it would be based on legal arguments raised by the parties to the contract,” she added.
Shukoor has also claimed that even before INIA was handed over to GMR, no asset valuation was carried out – a decision expected to cause problems for the government. She also said that it has not been yet decided how the asset valuation would be carried out or how the amount that the government might seek in compensation from GMR would be calculated.
Even with the arbitration process now proceeding, Shukoor told local media that if the government believed additional compensation was required, it would seek the additional amount through the same courts.
“A lot of work is being carried at the moment. However, we have not yet calculated the amount we might have to pay or the amount that had been invested and even the amount we expect to seek,” she explained.
GMR demands US$800 million in compensation
GMR is seeking US$800 million in compensation following the termination of its US$511 million concession agreement signed under the former government back in 2010.
The Indian infrastructure giant has said that the proposed US$800 million claim was based on its “provisional estimates” and that the company had also taken into account the Maldives’ ability to cover such payments if compensation was awarded by the Singaporean courts overseeing arbitration.
GMR’s chief Financial Officer (CFO) Sidharath Kapur previously told Minivan News that the sum was a “preliminary estimate” based on a number of factors including investments made by the company, debt equity and loss of profits as a result of the contract termination.
He also added that on last Tuesday (December 11) the company had communicated with Maldives Ministry of Finance by sending an official letter outlining its concerns that the contract had been “wrongfully” terminated without respect for the agreed procedures.
Meanwhile according to Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad, no mechanism is currently budgeted should the Maldives face a multi-million US dollar bill for evicting GMR, but stressed it was not for the company to decide on any eventual payment.
He also played down fears that any potential fine could prove perilous for the country’s economy, as well as attempts to reduce the spiralling budget deficit, stating that any possible fines would be set by the Singaporean arbitration court hearing the dispute.
“We will deal with the matter when we know the amount of compensation to be paid,” he said at the time. “GMR cannot decide, it will be down to the court [hearing the arbitration].”
The INIA concession agreement
In 2010, the government of Maldives through its Finance Ministry, MACL and GMR-MAHB entered into a concession agreement with INIA whereby the Malaysian-Indian consortium were to develop and operate the airport for a period of 25 years.
According to the concession agreement a “project company” under the name GMR International Airport Limited (GMIAL) was to carry out the development project.
However, a lengthy dispute between the new government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan and the GMR Group led to the eviction of the agreement.
On November 27, President Mohamed Waheed’s cabinet declared the agreement void, and gave the company a seven day ultimatum to leave the country.
Shukoor at the time stated the government reached the decision after considering “technical, financial and economic” issues surrounding the agreement.
She also claimed the government had obtained legal advice from “lawyers in both the UK and Singapore as well as prominent local lawyers – all who are in favour of the government’s legal grounds to terminate the contract.”
The INIA was handed over to the government on December 8, in an invitation-only press conference; Finance Minister Jihad presented the official handover documents to MACL Managing Director Mohamed Ibrahim, and said that the Maldives would pay whatever compensation was required “however difficult”.
With arbitration proceedings underway in Singapore over the contested airport development charge (ADC), GMR received a stay order on its eviction and appeared confident of its legal position even as the government declared that it would disregard the ruling and proceed with the eviction as planned.
On December 6, a day prior to its eviction, the government successfully appealed the injunction in the Supreme Court of Singapore. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon declared that “the Maldives government has the power to do what it wants, including expropriating the airport.”
That verdict, effectively legalising the sovereign eviction of foreign investors regardless of contractual termination clauses or pending arbitration proceedings, was “completely unexpected”, according to one GMR insider – “the lawyers are still in shock”, he said at the time.
A last ditch request for a review of the decision was rejected, as was a second attempt at an injunction filed by Axis Bank, GMR’s lender to the value of US$350 million.