Civil Court overturns EPA’s Rf100 million fine against Champa over Thunbafushi

The Civil Court has overturned the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA)’s Rf100 million (US$6.5 million) fine against local business tycoon Mohamed ‘Champa’ Moosa.

The EPA fined Champa the maximum possible penalty in June and labelled him an “environmental criminal” for irreversibly damaging the island of Thun’bafushi and the marine ecosystem of Thun’bafalhu, notably conducting dredging and reclamation works in the area without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

The Civil Court however ruled that the fine was not valid as the EPA had not given him the opportunity to respond to the allegations.

Judge Maryam Nihayath noted that under Article 43, “everyone has the right to administrative action that is lawful, procedurally fair, and expeditious.”

The judge said that the EPA had conducted many surveys in Thun’bufaru but had not shared the surveys with Champa, and that Champa was not informed of what actions had violated the law or what damage had been caused.

Judge Nihayath then ruled that the EPA had not completed “administratively fair procedure” that was required before any action against the accused could be taken, and invalidated the Rf100 million fine.

Director of the EPA Ibrahim Naeem told Minivan News today that the EPA had given all necessary documents to Champa and that he had been given “more than enough time to prepare his appeal.”

Naeem said the EPA had not been officially notified of the verdict and had yet to decide whether to appeal the decision in the High Court, or address any procedural issue and reissue the fine.

Naeem previously told Minivan News in June that the area had been irreversibly damaged and a large reef habitat destroyed.

“This was originally a reef ecosystem with a small sand bank in the middle, but he has been dredging the island without any clearance and the changes are now irreversible,” Naeem said at the time.

After three surveys of the area, the EPA had assessed the damage as amounting to Rf2,230,293,566 (US$144.6 million), not including the impact of sedimentation from the dredging which can smother coral kilometres from the site.

A foreign consultant who was involved in surveying the island had meanwhile told Minivan News that the area “seems to have been used as a dumping ground.”

“There were what looked like hundreds of used car batteries, waste metals and oil drums leeching into the marine environment,” the consultant said.
“We were looking at the effect of the dredging on sedimentation, and there were no water quality tests done. But you can just imagine what it would have been like with all the batteries and waste metals.”

Images of the island obtained by Minivan News showed discarded piles of rubbish and batteries, old earthmoving machinery rusting in the sun, and half a dozen reef sharks in a tank containing a foot of tepid water.

Several days after Champa was issued the fine in June, the then-Director General of the EPA Mohamed Zuhair suddenly resigned from the post, publicly stating on DhiTV – a private network owned by Champa – that his departure was due to “political interference” in the EPA’s fining of the tycoon.

Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam claimed that Zuhair had previously signalled his intention to participate in the government’s voluntary redundancy program three weeks before his sudden departure, which rendered him ineligible for the lump sum pay out.

Zuhair’s decision to apply for the program had caught the government by surprise, Aslam said at the time, explaining that he had met with the EPA’s Director General to try and retain him.

“His reason was that government pay was not meeting his financial needs, and he was looking to move to the private sector. We offered to move him to another department that would allow him to also work in the private sector – which is not allowed under the EPA’s regulations.”

Aslam said he became concerned when he pressed Zuhair for an explanation, “but he said on this matter he couldn’t tell us anything further.”

“We asked asked him then if this was a matter of national security, but he said no. So we respected his decision, and he submitted [the voluntary redundancy forms] with the Ministry of Finance, and we were just about to sign them – my signature was to be the last.”

Around this time Zuhair was allegedly sent a letter containing a mobile phone SIM card and a slip of paper note requesting he use it to call Nawal Firaq, the CEO of DhiTV.

Minivan News understands the letter containing the note and SIM card, registered in the name of a Bangladeshi labourer, was delivered to Zuhair’s flat on Friday morning but instead found its way to police.

Firaq denied knowledge of the letter when contacted by Minivan News in June. In the police inquiry subsequent to his resignation Zuhair cooperated with police but denied any knowledge of receiving the letter.

“This is Champa building his court case by attempting to question the independence of the EPA,” Aslam alleged at the time, noting that as the EPA’s Director General, Zuhair’s signature was on all the correspondence with Champa, including the notice informing him of the fine.

“Thun’bafushi has been an issue long before we took office,” Aslam told Minivan News, explaining that the previous administration had initially rented the island to Champa for Rf 100 a year (US$6.40) under an agreement that stipulated that he “not do anything detrimental to the environment – he was allowed to grow trees and monitor the shifting of the islands. He was not allowed to reclaim or extend the island.”

However Champa had conducted these works without ever submitting an EIA, Aslam alleged at the time.

“The area has been surveyed 2-3 times now, and last year the Director General attended himself a survey to assess the cost of the damage.”

The government had on several occasions asked Champa to explain himself, and he had corresponded with the EPA, Aslam said.

“Champa disputes he has done anything illegal, and states that has done everything according to the initial agreement.”

Champa had not responded to calls from Minivan News at time of press.