Malé-Hulhulé bridge will be opened in 2017, says tourism minister

Work on the proposed bridge linking capital Malé and Hulhulé is to begin next year with aims of opening the bridge in 2017, says Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb.

An MoU was signed yesterday between the Chinese and the Maldivian governments concerning the promotion of the bridge during the first ever presidential visit by a Chinese President to the Maldives.

Speaking to Haveeru, Adeeb said that President Abdulla Yameen plans for the bridge to be open in 2017.

The project is linked to President Yameen’s plans for a ‘youth city’ in Hulhumalé, which is reported to include youth-specific housing, international class sports facilities, a theme park, yacht marina, and a tourism district for a population of 50,000.

“President Yameen has a lot of ambitions for Youth City. Creating lots of job opportunities along with housing is amongst the aims President Yameen has for the city. All of this is connected via the bridge. So God willing, the bridge project will be completed,” said Adeeb.

Chinese President Xi Jinpeng suggested the name ‘China-Maldives Friendship Bridge’ to be given to the bridge in recognition to the strong diplomatic relations between the two states.

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Wave of the future: Surfing and the end of exclusivity

Professional free-surfer Dave ‘Rasta’ Rastovich, defeated seasoned campaigner Taylor Knox in the grand final of the Four Seasons Maldives Surfing Champions Trophy yesterday (August 10) to be crowned the 2014 champion.

The event saw six former world champions, including Knox, Rastovich, Sunny Garcia, Taylor Jensen, Fabio Gouveia, and Rochelle Ballard battling it out all week at Sultans Point.

For the third consecutive year, Hussein ‘Iboo’ Areef won the hotly contested Domestic Champions Trophy which showcased the island nation’s depth of surf talent. The ‘goofy footer’ (right foot forward stance) defeated Ismail ‘Kuda Issay’ Miglal, Amid ‘Ammaday’ Agil and Mohamed ‘Billu’ Irushad.

All six former world champions were impressed after watching the local final, with Contest Director Ross Phillips noting, “the standard of surfing today in the Domestic Champions Trophy was world class. It was a tough final and Iboo was a deserving winner.”

“The Maldivian Surfing Association is forging ahead in leaps and bounds. It’s fantastic to watch surfing progress at both a performance and organisational level in the Maldives,” he added.

Fewer barriers to local involvement

This is the fourth year that Four Seasons and Tropicsurf have held the event, and the third year that Maldivian talent has competed in the domestic category.

After national champion Areef last year highlighted the need for more local involvement in the competition, many of this year’s competitors agreed that there has been a vast improvement in the involvement of local surf community.

Spearheaded by collaboration with the Maldives Surf Association (MSA), the 2014 competition saw more local involvement, including Maldivian shadowing judges.

There remains one change Afeef would like to see in next years competition, however.

“It would be great to get a chance to surf against the champions, even just one local guy to compete in the main event,” stated Areef.

Similarly, Dave Rastovich commended the local surfing talent and stressed the need for local participation.

“Its crucial to involve the local community, especially in surfing. There have been big divides,” Rastovich told Minivan News.

Rasta went on to highlight the important link between privatisation and the divide between local and international surfers.

“[Exclusivity] always created a lot of division between communities. Division between visiting people and locals.”

“It suits a few, but to the detriment of the many,” Rastovich warned.

Rastovich, a dedicated marine conservation activist, went on to highlight some of the environmental issues faced in local oceans – a topic which has often intertwined with Maldivian surfing culture.

“There are so many great species of fish [in the Maldives] that you don’t see in Indonesia anymore, you don’t see in parts of Australia anymore, and certainly don’t see them throughout Asia.”

“So the great thing about here is that you’re not there yet. There’s still species, there’s still populations here, you have the time. It’s a no-brainer both ecologically and economically to preserve and protect,” encouraged Rastovich .

The end of exclusivity?

Speaking at the grand final ceremony yesterday, Minister of Tourism Ahmed Adeeb explained the government’s new enthusiasm for the development of surfing in the Maldives.

“It was the youth who identified, who kept pushing us, to develop the surf,” explained Adeeb.

“The surf points were exclusive for the resorts and hotels here, but we have ended exclusivity for the locals.”

The surf breaks of the Maldives have been a battle-ground in recent years, with local surfers, ministries and resorts engaged in heated debate since 2011 over access to the waves.

After years of pressure from local campaigning against privatisation, the Maldives government appears to have retracted its original stance, announcing that all popular surf and dive spots have been freed from any access restrictions.

“We believe there are a lot of surf points in the Maldives that need to be protected, and we need to make it a sanctuary for the surfers,” stated Adeeb.

Ahmed Aznil, president of the MSA, pointed out that free breaks are not all plain sailing.

“A free for all, without the necessary legislative and management holds in place would eventually lead to chaos.”

The key to success, argues Aznil, is keeping the breaks well managed and to maintain clear communication between the government and stakeholders.

Meanwhile, the next Maldives’ surf competition will be the Red Bull Both Ways event, held at Sultans breaks between August 20 – 30. The competition, which has fifty slots for Maldivian surfers, challenges Maldivian and Sri Lankan surfers to ride both left and right waves.

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How will guest house islands benefit the community?

With the unveiling of the first guest house island plan this week, industry experts have questioned whether the government’s new guest house tourism policy will benefit the local communities in the same was as past approaches.

“The guest house is a policy – a development implement,” said former Minister for Economic Development Mahmud Razee.

“It should be an equitable thing – if it is purely a tourism policy that is only on a selected island, then we are moving away from the fundamental issue of enabling all Maldivians to benefit from tourism.”

The model’s first project – the Thumburi ‘Integrated Resort Development’ scheme – was launched on Monday night (June 23), being branded as a way to “responsibly diversify the tourism product of the Maldives”.

Recent guest house development – reintroduced by the Maldivian Democratic Party after a decades-long hiatus – was intended to open up the billion dollar tourism market to small and medium sized businesses.

While the placement of guest houses on local island was also intended to stimulate the local economies, concern was expressed by religious groups regarding the impact on local communities.

President Yameen’s guest house island policy – included in his election manifesto – instead plans to recreate the more traditional resort concept, with the participation of multiple smaller entrepreneurs.

“Once again today we are looking to diversify tourism, to shape it in a different way. It does not mean moving away from the existing concept of having one resort on one island,” said Yameen at Monday’s launch.

Yameen also revealed that future developments would take place within proposed special economic zones, which will cede local authority to incoming foreign investors as part of  a system of incentives agreed upon at the government’s discretion.

‘A new concept for a world class brand’

Describing the project as “a new concept for a world class brand”, the Thumburi brochure reveals plans for several beach hotels with rooms ranging from US$100-200 – far less than that currently charged by the country’s budget resorts.

The development of the project will be overseen by the government’s marketing corporation, the MMPRC – who unable to respond to further queries at the time of press.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb has previously told Minivan News that, while his government would continue to support individual guest houses, there was a reluctance to promote them for fear of damaging the country’s brand as a luxury tourism destination.

“The thing is, from a marketing perspective, we have positioned the Maldives as a high-end destination,” explained Adeeb.

“A-category guests will continue coming for as long as we market the country as an A-category destination. Guests for B,C,D and E categories are something we automatically get.”

General Manager of Sales and Marketing at Triple A resorts Willem Fokkenrood, however, disagrees with this assessment, suggesting that this type of exclusive approach is outdated.

“Does guest house and B&Bs damage Hawaii’s image? No, it just puts more money into the pot.”

Fokkenrood also suggested that placement of the of the guest house concept on single islands would “defeat the purpose” of the model.

“People want to have guesthouses so the local people can reap the benefit from it. If you open a guest house island, what benefit are you talking about?” he asked.

“Because you get to stay with the local population, it’s a draw for a lot of people to say ‘I have stayed in the real Maldives’.”

Fokkenrood felt the key difference between the new concept and the traditional guest house model would be the addition of pork and alcohol products – illegal on the Maldives’ inhabited islands – to the mid-market sector.

“That would change the game, then it becomes a direct competitor to these established resorts,” he said.

Razee, however, felt that the policy may represent an attempt to reassure current industry leaders – described as oligarchs in a recent UNDP report – that the mid range market would progress in a “more controlled fashion”.

Minivan News was unable to obtain further comment from the Tourism Ministry on this subject.

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Tourism minister defends under-fire economic zones bill

With additional reporting by Zaheena Rasheed

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb has responded to critics of his government’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ) bill, arguing that stimulating regional infrastructure will lead to long term development.

“I think the critics have got it wrong, they believe we are trying to centralise all the housing and everything to Malé – bringing all the people from here and there and then giving all those islands to corporates,” Adeeb told Minivan News today.

The SEZ bill – recently introduced to the People’s Majlis – gives the government the authority to relax regulations for foreign investors in designated regions, prompting fears that local autonomy will be lost.

Adeeb – also head of the cabinet’s economic council – said that his government strongly believed in a model of development followed by decentralisaton, arguing that the Maldives did not yet have enough resources to facilitate devolution.

“Land, labour, and capital – the central government and the regional governments are fighting for it as we don’t have enough resources even for the existing government to cover the budget deficits.”

“I believe when there’s enough economic activity we can give more powers to the councils,” he continued.

The aim of the bill was to encourage further development of tourism outside of the central atolls – or the ‘sea plane zone’, he added, referring to the proximity from Malé’s international airport.

“Even you see even President Nasheed’s guest houses, it’s getting centralised in Malé because it’s more feasible here,” he explained.

“I believe that by doing the SEZ Act, we will bring the investment to these regions and this is the real decentralisation of investments.”

Incentives

The bill has been touted as a way to incentivise investors as the government works to attract new development after years of political instability.

“Our total focus in on economics – we are not running behind our political opponents and we have stopped political rhetoric now – we have stopped responding to that but we are responding to economic issues,” said Adeeb.

Envisioning up to nine zones designated by a 17-member board consisting largely of government officials, the legislation includes the development of industrial, free-trade, offshore finance, and high-tech zones.

Article 33 makes clear that, once designated an SEZ, local councils will no longer have authority over the area.

Adeeb explained that, while consultations would be held with local authorities, the details of the incentives granted to incoming investors would be at the discretion of the central government.

“There will be consultations with the local councils, but the decision making power will be here because we want to take decisions very fast and we want development as soon as possible.”

“If Singapore had been reluctant, and had not taken the decisions they had taken, they would never have reached the economic development they have,” he added.

Although the government has expressed hope that the move could pave the way to an economy less reliant on the tourism industry, Article 74 allows up to 40 percent of any zone to be tourist-related development.

The bill requires the Maldives Customs Service to formulate regulations for each zone, while a zone administration office will provide security services.

Article 77 mandates that only 10 percent of technical experts can be foreign, though this can be overridden by the investment board – which can also add a number of additional incentives to contracts such as extended tax relief, and leasing land to foreign companies for up to 99 years.

“It will be according to investment size and scope,” explained Adeeb. “The law gives the power to give even one hundred percent of those [incentives] but that doesn’t mean that the government will act on that.”

Critics

The bill’s most prominent skeptic so far has been MMA Governor Dr Azeema Adam who has suggested that, without enhancing local employment, the bill will offer little immediate regional benefit the regions.

“In the special economic zones, developers have the right to bring any amount of expatriate workers as well, so we might be able to generate jobs, but if those jobs go to expatriates we are not going to reap the benefit of such development activities,” said Dr Azeema – who will sit on the investment board should the bill be passed.

Salma Fikry, a former recipient of a President’s Award for services to decentralisation, has suggested that the bill works against the spirit of devolved government – shifting power from elected representatives to corporations.

“Corporations don’t work for the public good, they work for corporate profit. Is Adeeb saying he is satisfied with trickle down economics?” she asked.

“This is leading the ownership of this country’s resources into the hands of a handful of corporations driven by the quest for short-term power and financial gain. It is not sustainable nor empowering for the Maldivian population,” continued Salma.

Elsewhere, the decentralisation advocacy group the Rajjethere Meehun Party has described the bill as “a monster in the making”, while members of the social community ‘The Maldivian Economist’ have questioned the bill’s logic.

“If it is for other industries, why so many benefits to tourism sector in SEZ bill?” asked the group, noting that the industry is currently thriving – with resorts often in close proximity to local councils.

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Government launches guest house island project

With additional reporting by Daniel Bosley

Details of the government’s first guest house island on Thumburi, in Laamu atoll, were revealed last night.

“Once again today we are looking to diversify tourism, to shape it in a different way. It does not mean moving away from the existing concept of having one resort on one island,” said President Abdulla Yameen during the launch.

Part of the Progressive Party of Maldives’ election manifesto, the guest house island concept aims to diversify the tourism industries to include small and medium enterprises, without encroaching on inhabited islands.

While guest house tourism on populated islands has grown rapidly in recent years, some in the industry have expressed concern that it may damage the high-end resort image of the Maldives.

The project – which will involve the development of a 2,100 bed resort run by multiple local businesses – was described as  “communal tourism development” or “vertical tourism” by the president.

“So in this newly introduced concept, we are inviting various small and medium businesses who are interested in this industry to chip-in money – [it is a] type of tourism based on amounts which could be easily borrowed from banks as well,” he continued.

The president also revealed that further guest house island projects would be carried out within the special economic zones to be established under proposed legislation.

Speaking at yesterday’s event, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb explained that the decision had come in response to medium sized businesses who wished to gain a foothold in the resort industry.

Only Maldivians will be permitted to invest in such projects, with priority given to those not yet involved in the industry, explained Adeeb.

The Thumburi project will  make land available on the 17 hectare uninhabited island – as well as the linked Hulhiyandhoo island – for investors to develop hotels, a diving school, water sports centres, restaurants and shopping centres, while government owned companies will invest in the island’s basic infrastructure – electricity and sewage.

The Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) will lead the project and engage with investors who will then market their own products.

MMPRC is currently fielding expressions of interest and expects to begin development by the end of the year.

“In our mind, the ultimate objective of this [project] would be increasing job opportunities and providing the opportunity to go forward benefiting the economy for many young Maldivians, and to double our per capita GDP income when our five-year term is completed,” President Yameen said at yesterday’s event.

Despite the tripling of guest house bed capacity in the past six years, the industry continues to be dominated by the one island/one resort model.

Growing from just 22 registered businesses in 2009, to 171 currently listed, the guest house tourism project – initiated during the presidency of Mohamed Nasheed – was introduced as an attempt to allow local communities to benefit from the billion dollar industry.

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Maldives wins Seven Star Global Luxury Awards

The Maldives has won two prizes at this year’s Seven Star Global Luxury Awards, winning best a destination as well as a special achievement honour for Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb.

Nominated alongside destinations including the Bahamas, Fiji, the Seychelles, Italy, and Mexico, the Maldives was named best destination for the second year running.

Meanwhile, the ‘Outstanding Achievement in Tourism Award’ again went to the Maldives’ tourism minister for having overseen the arrival of one million tourists last year for the first time in the country’s history.

“The ‘Seven Star Destination Winner’ award belongs to the tourism industry partners of Maldives who have been working hard to develop the industry and maintain high level standards,” said Adeeb.

The seven star awards are regarded as the most exclusive international luxury award for the hospitality industry, recognising extraordinary achievements by bestowing upon winners the Signum Virtutis – a seal of excellence for all prospective guests.

After being nominated by Seven Star’s expert panel, industry professionals as well as the public voted for the winners, who received their prize at an award ceremony held at the Chateau Spa & Organic Wellness Resort in Malaysia on Saturday (June 14).

Over 1.1 million tourists visited the Maldives in 2013, a milestone achieved one year behind the government’s original plans after political turmoil temporarily deterred visitors during 2012.

Recent statistics have shown that the industry – directly responsible for 29 percent of GDP – continues to grow, with arrivals up by 11.2 percent based on the same period in 2013.

After developing primarily as a destination for European tourists, the recent expansion of the industry has been heavily reliant on the explosion of the Chinese market – which grew from around 6 percent of arrivals in 2008 to over 26 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Despite moves to expand the mid-market tourism product in the country, the luxury single island resort model continues to dominate over hotels, guest houses and safari vessel options – making up nearly 80 percent of the industry’s bed capacity.

Adeeb has previously explained that the image of the country as a high-end destination was vital in order to attract “A-category” guests, with lower-end facilities subsequently benefitting from the luxury image.

The government is currently considering expansion plans to accommodate the arrival of five millions tourists at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, and has recently reached out to new markets in Australia.

A survey conducted by the Tourism Ministry earlier this year found that 98 percent of tourists would recommend the Maldives as a holiday destination to others.

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Former Progressive Coalition partners dispute validity of agreement

The ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) has said its former coalition partner Jumhooree Party (JP) must initiate a new coalition, while the JP maintains the initial agreement is still valid.

Speaking to ‘Haveeru‘ Ahmed Adeeb – minister of tourism, co-chair of the cabinet’s Economic Council and PPM deputy leader has said the JP would have to express interest in forging another coalition with his party.

Blaming JP leader Gasim Ibrahim for ending the coalition, Adheeb said President Abdulla Yameen does not want to persecute political opponents or make statements about such issues.

Noting his respect for Gasim as a “generous” and “politically experienced” individual, Adeeb acknowledged the JP leader’s contribution helping the government to power, but stated that PPM would not allow anyone to pressure the government.

“We should be faithful to the votes people has given us. We should respect the opportunity to improve the economy given to PPM by the people. I am sure Gasim would also acknowledge [this]. And Gasim will also acknowledge that President Yameen will do no harm to him,” Adheeb was quoted as saying.

He told Haveeru that the opposition MDP had manipulated Gasim into believing that he could become the speaker of the parliament – the cause of the Progressive Coalition’s breakup last month.

Responding to Adeeb’s comments JP Secretary General Ahmed Sameer said the party still believes the initial coalition agreement is valid and will continue to respect the terms of that agreement.

“The coalition agreement was never abrogated, so there is no reason to form another coalition. I think what they [PPM] are saying is just a media stunt, there is no truth in it. It is sad that they have acted against the agreement [in purging political appointees in JP slots], but JP will continue to abide by it,” said Sameer.

He noted that the JP have not been informed about the abrogation of the initial coalition agreement.

“There have been no discussion with us about this and no formal communication of any sort,” Sameer said.

The fall out between the two parties became visible after the 18th People’s Majlis was elected and when both parties expressed interest in nominating candidates for the position of Majlis Speaker.

Despite the PPM’s warnings that the coalition agreement would be cancelled if JP proposed a candidate, party leader Gasim decided to stand for the position – eventually losing the ballot to the PPM candidate MP Abdulla Maseeh.

Soon after Gasim announced his candidacy PPM council unanimously passed a resolution announcing the coalition agreement had been “brought to an end by the Jumhooree Party”.

Within the week the government moved against political appointees belonging to JP removing and taking administrative action against them. One of the Cabinet ministers on a JP slot later signed for PPM.

JP has since accused PPM of not honoring the coalition agreement form the early days of coming to power, noting that the promised 35 percent stake in political appointees was not delivered.

The party claimed that only 29 slots were offered to them among as many as 300 positions. PPM has said that many of JP nominees had been unqualified.

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MPL refused to cooperate in Tourism Minister corruption investigation, says auditor general

Board members of Maldives Ports Limited (MPL) have refused to cooperate with an investigation into corruption allegations against Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb, the Auditor General has said.

Adeeb is accused of abusing his position to obtain MVR77.1 million (US$5 million) from the MPL and US$1 million from Maldives Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC), and loaning the money to companies owned by relatives and friends via state-owned tourism promotion company the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC).

Case documents show the MPL board approved the payment to MMPRC.

Auditor General Ibrahim Niyaz said a preliminary report into the case could only be completed with input from MPL board members, but some had refused to answer summons.

“The MPL board did not cooperate with us. Some of them did not answer our summons for investigation,” Niyaz said.

The MPL did, however, provide required documentation, he noted.

MPL CEO Mahdi Imad told news agency Haveeru that he was unaware of summons. He denied any wrongdoing in the transaction, claiming MMPRC was using the rufiyaa to buy dollars for MPL.

“Our company has engaged in buying dollars before. There is nothing to hide in this case,” Mahdi said

Meanwhile, the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) has said the auditor general’s report was required before the commission could initiate a probe.

Adeeb has not denied involvement in the transaction, but said such transactions were routine between state owned companies in order to avoid purchasing dollars on the black market.

As Tourism Minister he had also helped the state’s primary wholesaler State Trading Organisation (STO) obtain dollars to import goods, he told Minivan News.

“The problem here is that I am being singled out and targeted,” he said, suggesting the unfair “defamation attempt” was linked to his refusal to support certain individuals for the position of speaker of the 18th People’s Majlis.

“There is absolutely no room for anyone to say that I fled with the MMPRC’s coffers,” he continued.

The minister confirmed cheques had bounced, but said the MTDC’s US$1 million had been reimbursed, while MPL had been paid one- third of the owed amount in dollars. The remaining two thirds are due in June, he added.

The individual who lodged the complaint questioned the MPL and MMPRC’s justification, claiming: “The MMPRC is run on state funds, and as the company does not earn in dollars, it is highly questionable that the MPL gave the company money to buy dollars,”

MPL had also transferred rufiyaa to the MMPRC at a time when the company had failed to pay dividends to the government. The company had argued it did not have money in its accounts, the complainant said.

They further alleged the MMPRC Managing Director Abdulla Ziyath personally went to MPL with the company’s seal to collect the cheques, demonstrating “the act was a planned act, for personal gain by the leaders of MPL and MMPRC.”

“When one company’s MD personally goes to receive funds from another company, it is evident this act is committed in secrecy, behind the company’s employees’ backs.”

As soon as the MMPRC obtained the money, it was transferred in two installments to a company owned by Adeeb’s friend called Millennium Capital Management without any bank checks or security procedures, the complainant said.

The US$1 million obtained from MTDC was loaned to a company owned by Adeeb’s father called Montillion International Pvt Ltd. Adeeb used to own majority of the shares in the company, but on becoming tourism minister in 2012, transferred all of his shares to his father Abdul Ghafoor Adam.

The complainant does not appear to have submitted any supporting evidence for the transfer of funds from MMPRC to the two companies.

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MDP suggests extremist ideologies prevalent within the security services

Concerning levels of extremist ideology are present within the Maldives military and police forces, the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has said.

In a statement issued today, the party said it has been noted that most militants travelling from the Maldives to foreign countries “in the name of jihad” are members of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and Maldives Police Services (MPS).

The Ministry of Defence and National Security has responded to the MDP’s remarks, describing the accusations as “baseless and untrue” comment intended to “discredit and disparage” military.

“Therefore we condemn in the strictest terms this irresponsible act of the Maldivian Democratic Party. And call on the Maldivian Democratic Party to stop spreading misinformation in ways which could confuse the public and become a responsible political party,” the ministry’s statement read. The Maldives Police Service (MPS) have not commented on the issue.

Citing foreign intelligence agencies, the MDP said funds of an unknown nature are being transferred to foreign parties through Maldivian banks.

Earlier this month, the US State Department releases a report claiming Maldivian authorities had knowledge of funds for terrorism being raised in the country – a claim subsequently denied by the Maldives Monetary Authority.

The MDP today said that the Maldives was now becoming a transit port for illegal drug trafficking, with a large amount of strong drugs already being delivered internationally through the country.

Local media have today reported over 3kgs of illegal drugs being seized in the capital Malé as the Home Ministry continues to crack down on the trade.

A record haul of 24kg of heroin was seized by police in March before of Pakistani nationals arrested in the operation were set free – an incident cited by the acting prosecutor general for his recent resignation.

“This is taking place at a time when definite proof of Defence Minister [Mohamed Nazim] and Tourism Minister’s [Ahmed Adeeb] close relations with world famous drug cartels or gangs are being revealed through photos and others mediums,” read the MDP statement.

Suggesting that extremist elements within the security force were behind the “overthrow of the first democratic government of Maldives in a coup d’etat on 7 February 2012”, the party called on state authorities to launch criminal investigations and to take action against guilty members of security forces as per the recommendations of the CoNI (Commission of National Inquiry) report.

This party calls upon the responsible authorities of the state to to investigate and look in to the points noted in the CoNI report, and remove the extremist elements within the security forces.

“The party calls on the relevant committee of the People’s Majlis to immediately investigate and take necessary action against those in the security forces who are following extremist ideologies , and earn the goodwill of the Maldivian citizens and foreign parties, and make this country peaceful,” the statement continued.

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