The central bank has frozen the accounts of several companies owned by opposition Jumhooree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim, over a US$90.4 million payment allegedly owed as unpaid rent, fines and interest on several properties leased for tourism.
The Villa group has refused to make the payment and is contesting the tax authority’s claim at the civil court. Gasim has accused the government of unfairly targeting his business interests.
The Villa group operates businesses in shipping, import and export, retail, tourism, fishing, media, communications, transport and education. Only the accounts of companies which hold the properties were frozen. They are Villa Shipping, Villa Holidays, Gazeera Pvt Ltd and Maanenfushi Pvt Ltd.
Villa officials on Tuesday told local media the accounts slated to be frozen are empty.
But the Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA) says the government can suspend all services to the company, including customs clearance and foreign work visas, if it is unable to recover owed sums through the frozen accounts.
MIRA issued the US$90.4 million notice in February after the tourism ministry terminated agreements for several properties leased to Villa and subsidiary companies for resort development.
The move followed Gasim’s JP forming an alliance with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party. However, the government denies the opposition’s accusations of unfairly targeting Gasim’s business interests.
The properties at stake were leased under a settlement agreement signed with the tourism ministry on December 12, 2013, less than a month after president Abdulla Yameen took office.
Some 27 cases challenging the termination of the agreements and MIRA’s notice as well as appeals of the civil court’s refusal to grant stay orders are ongoing at court.
Villa – which won the tax authority’s “Ran Laari” award last year as one of five companies that paid the highest amount to the state – insists it does not owe any money to the state.
The notice for payment expired on April 18, but MIRA did not freeze the company’s accounts saying the move may negatively affect the Maldivian economy, local media reports.
The Villa group has previously said freezing its accounts will “send shockwaves” through the Maldivian economy.
“It is not only Villa’s shareholders’ and the company’s rights that are lost [if bank accounts are frozen]. The rights of a lot of employees who work at the company, small and medium-sized businesses dependent on this company, guests who have made bookings at our resorts, tour operators, and many other people, would also be lost,” Villa Group’s executive director Shimad Ibrahim had said.
The Villa group employs over 5,000 people.
The central bank has also frozen the accounts of JH Resorts Pvt Ltd, the Maldives Tourism Development Corporation, Asia resorts, Yacht Tours Pvt and Medhufushi and the accounts of AAA Pvt Ltd.
Since the notice was issued, Gasim has not been seen in opposition protests or made any comments over a crackdown on the opposition, including the arrest of JP deputy leader Ameen Ibrahim on May 2.