MATI concerned over “concerted international campaign” against several resort owners

The Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) has issued a statement expressing “serious concern” over what it describes as a “concerted international campaign” against several of the country’s resort operators.

MATI claimed that calls from the Maldives Tourism Advisory (MTA) for tourists to avoid certain properties on the basis of ownership were “libelous in the extreme”, as the allegations against the tourist resort operators “have not been proven either through an investigation or a court of law.”

The MTA website features a ‘traffic light’ system with “red” resorts recently appearing to have been expanded to include an assortment of 18 properties owned by Vice President Waheed Deen and senior figures associated with the new ruling coalition, including Jumhoree Party (JP) Leader Gasim Ibrahim, Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) MP Abdulla Jabir, and Hussain ‘Champa’ Afeef.

MATI claimed that “unsubstantiated charges directed at some resort operators [will] result not only in loss of business at their resorts, but in loss of reputation and standing in international markets and the global community.”

“A call to boycott the resorts could [also] lead to enormous loss of business and lay-off of resort staff and support workers, not to mention those several small businesses that cater to the tourism industry that will be affected.”

The resort body accused the campaigners of “not having the decency to come out in the open” and “hiding behind the safe veil of the internet.”

“It is our belief that the several accusations and charges directed at the operators of resort businesses must be proven in a court of law before these businesses are subject to industrial action or denunciation.”

The MTA yesterday released a statement in response to MATI, emphasising that it was not calling for a boycott but rather “supplementing” existing travel advice from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

“Visitors choosing to be selective and avoiding resorts tainted by the actions of their owners might lead to some loss of business to these resorts, but we are quite convinced that it would not have an overall impact on the economy of the Maldives,” the MTA said in a statement. “Nor would it seriously affect the prospects of employment for Maldivians. This is proven by the government’s own figures showing a healthy increase in tourism arrivals.”

“While MATI mentions investigations of resort owners in a “court of law” it can clearly be seen that the Maldivian judiciary would be an inappropriate institution for such an investigation, given that one of MATI’s senior members (and whose resorts we recommend avoiding) sits on the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), the body tasked with overseeing the judiciary,” the MTA noted.

“”The only ‘investigation’ that we are aware of at present is the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI). This is deemed to be neither serious, timely nor unbiased by international observers and most Maldivians. No serious efforts have been made to address the deficiencies in this investigation, and they do not involve the resort owners mentioned in the MTA.

“The MTA always carefully considers all the available facts from several sources when recommending resorts to be avoided. There is no necessity to await ‘investigations’ and “courts of law” (as the MATI statement suggests) as MTA recommendations are based on important information that serves to enable visitor choice.”

Quarterly tourism figures published by the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) showed a 3.3 percent rise in visitor arrivals compared to the same period in 2011, however this was lower than the 12.6 percent growth seen in the first quarter of 2011 compared to 2010.

Growth in Chinese arrivals slowed dramatically due to cancelled charter flights, while several of the country’s mainstay markets declined – including Italy, France and the UK. Russian, German, Swiss and Middle Eastern arrivals showed strong increases.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb and former Tourism Minister Dr Mariyam Zulfa were not responding at time of press.


Supreme Court to rule in defamation case against self

The Supreme Court has issued a writ of prohibition and taken over a defamation case against it filed in the Civil Court by Ibrahim ‘Ibra’ Ismail.

The Supreme Court order issued today states that it had learned that the Civil Court had accepted a defamation suit filed by Ibra. It ordered the lower court not to take “any action regarding the said case” and to send “all the documents in the case file, including all actions taken since the case was filed as well as the minutes” to the court before 3:30pm this afternoon.

The writ of prohibition was signed by Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz.

Ibra, a member of the Constitution Draft Committee of the former Special Majlis, longstanding Male’ MP and founding member of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), had filed the case against the Supreme Court after it reprimanded him for calling on the public to “rise up and sort out the judges”.

In response to Ibra’s calls, the Supreme Court and the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) demanded authorities investigate the former MP, claiming that “making such statements in a free, democratic society under lawful governance goes against the principles of civilisation”.

Ibra responded by filing a defamation suit in the Civil Court against the Supreme Court.

But today, “The documents and everything have been handcuffed and taken to the Supreme Court,” Ibra told Minivan News.

“Initially [the Civil Court] was of the opinion that the case was not in their jurisdiction, because it involved the Supreme Court. But I appealed to the registrar, outlined my argument, and the second time they agreed they could and should accept the case,” Ibra said.

“I paid my fees, and was waiting for them to hold the first hearing. Then today I had a call from newspaper Haveeru asking me to comment on the Supreme Court’s taking over the case – I replied that no one had told me about it and I was not in a position to comment. Later my lawyer called and said the Supreme Court had published the writ on their website.”

As a result, Ibra said, “I now have to go before the Supreme Court and say to them ‘You have defamed me, now please decide in my favour.’”

Ibra has previously observed that the act of an appellate court taking over the jurisdiction of a trial court was unprecedented “in any democratic country, anywhere in the world.”

“Even in cases of a mistrial, the instruction is to retry the case. Appellate courts don’t sit on trials. And they are systematically doing it – at least three cases so far. What they are effectively doing is influencing the independence of the trial court. The significance of that is that if trial court judges cannot be independent of the higher court, there is no room for appeals. Because the decision is going to be the Supreme Court decision,” Ibra told Minivan News.

“I don’t see how they can sit in judgement on themselves,” Ibra said today. “Every single defamation case until now has been tried in the Civil Court. Just because the Supreme Court is involved doesn’t mean the Civil Court should not hear the case – the Supreme Court is obstructing the process of justice.”

The fact that the decision to take over the case from the Civil Court implied that a majority of the seven Supreme Court judges had elected to do so, Ibra said.

“This means the majority of the Supreme Court judges are not cognisant of the principles of natural justice, and are clearly trying to obstruct the provision of judge to a citizen claiming his fundamental right as guaranteed in black and white in the Constitution.

“This is not about Ibra. If they can do this to Ibra they are setting a precedent to do it to just about anyone.”

He suggested that the Supreme Court’s action today “establishes what I originally claimed. We as citizens – the public – have to do something. We can’t let seven idiots hijack the justice system of the entire country.”


Gayoom loses defamation case over NYT “looters” article

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has lost a long-running defamation case against the editor of Miadhu newspaper Abdul ‘Gabey’ Latheef.

Gayoom sued Latheef over an article published on June 13, 2010 which referenced allegations of corruption against the former President made in a New York Times (NYT) report.

That story was based on an audit report of former Presidential palace Theemuge, published by Auditor General Ibrahim Naeem, a damning indictment of the former government’s spending habits.

These, according to the NYT article, included an estimated “US$9.5 million spent buying and delivering a luxury yacht from Germany for the president, US$17 million on renovations of the presidential palace and family houses, a saltwater swimming pool, badminton court, gymnasium, 11 speed boats and 55 cars, including the country’s only Mercedes-Benz.”

“And the list goes on, from Loro Piana suits and trousers to watches and hefty bills for medical services in Singapore for ‘important people and their families. There was a US$70,000 trip to Dubai by the first lady in 2007, a US$20,000 bill for a member of the family of the former president to stay a week at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore. On one occasion, diapers were sent to the islands by airfreight from Britain for Mr Gayoom’s grandson.”

Onus of proof

The Civil Court ruled today that as both articles were based on a state audit report, the information made public by the country’s first independent auditor general should be considered valid unless proven otherwise.

The court judgment added that there was no legal basis for individuals or media outlets to be held responsible for proving the truth or falsehood of an official audit report.

Delivering the judgment, Judge Mariyam Nihayath said that while the court believed the articles in question could be damaging to Gayoom’s reputation, information publicised in an audit report must be considered factual unless proven otherwise.

“Regardless of how damaging statements made or information provided is to the plaintiff’s honour or dignity, if the statement or information is true, [defamation law] states that it cannot be considered defamatory,” she said.

Latheef told Minivan News today that the court case was the first case Gayoom had lost in 32 years, and was a landmark case for freedom of the media.

“The media must be able to report on independent authorities such as the Auditor General’s Office or the Anti-Corruption Commission,” he said. “His lawyers said in court four or five times that they wanted to stop the media writing about these things.”

The court’s ruling meant that Gayoom was obliged to sue the source of the allegations, the Auditor General’s office, rather than the media that reported on it, Latheef said.

“[Gayoom] has been saying for three years he would take the Auditor General to court, but he hasn’t because he knows he will lose. But he thinks that, because I’m just an ordinary man, he can sue me,” he said.

Latheef said that one of Gayoom’s lawyers had approached him to settle out of court, but said he had refused as that would not have resolved the issue of media freedom at stake.

“They also approached me indirectly through some of my close friends to say why didn’t I settle and say sorry in court, and then they could support me. I said it was not compensation I needed.”

Latheef said Gayoom’s lawyers had told him after the verdict that they intended to appeal in the High Court.

“I am ready to go all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Latheef.

Gayoom’s spokesperson Mohamed ‘Mundhu’ Shareef had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.

Head of the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA), Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir, said he agreed with the ruling and felt that it was a good precedent for the country’s journalists.

“The NYT reported on the audit report and Mr Latheef reported on the NYT story. I agree with the court’s judgement,” Hiriga said, concurring that the media was not under obligation to prove the veracity of official government reports.

“The authenticity of the audit report is a different question, and the accusation is that the Auditor General was biased and that the report was politically motivated. That was the basis of the argument by Gayoom’s lawyer,” Hiriga said.

“Politically motivated”

The opposition have steadfastly maintained that the report was a politically-motivated attempt to sully the then-president’s reputation prior to the election. Naeem was however appointed by Gayoom.

“It is common knowledge that Naeem’s audit reports were both politically-motivated and riddled with inaccuracies. References from such documents are unbecoming of professional journalists, albeit the MDP government utilises them as handbooks to achieve their political objectives,” said the DRP in a statement following publication of the article.

“The MDP government, in an year and a half of searching through its ‘presidential commission’, has failed to find anything that they can pin against President Gayoom to defame his character. The MDP government will continue to fail in their sinister plots,” the DRP statement read.

“The DRP will take all necessary action to alert the international community to the government’s sinister motives behind the allegations against the former president. We condemn the government for its continued attempts to shroud its incompetence in running the country behind cheap propaganda gimmicks.”

Naeem’s tenure following publication of over 30 audit reports, alleging rampant corruption and “organised crime” by the Gayoom administration, was short-lived.

On March 24 last year, Naeem sent a list of current and former government ministers to the Prosecutor General, requesting they be prosecuted for failure to declare their assets.  Naeem cited Article 138 of the Constitution that requires every member of the Cabinet to “annually submit to the Auditor General a statement of all property and monies owned by him, business interests and all assets and liabilities.”

He then held a press conference: “A lot of the government’s money was taken through corrupt [means] and saved in the banks of England, Switzerland, Singapore and Malaysia,” Naeem said, during his first press appearance in eight months.

Five days later he was dismissed by the opposition-majority parliament on allegations of corruption by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), for purportedly using the government’s money to buy a tie and visit Thulhaidhu in Baa Atoll.

The motion to dismiss Naeem was put forward by the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), chaired by Deputy Speaker and member of opposition-allied People’s Alliance (PA), Ahmed Nazim, who the previous week had pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud the former Ministry of Atolls Development while he was Managing Director of Namira Engineering and Trading Pvt Ltd.

Nazim was today dismissing claims from opposition MPs that he has dodged Criminal Court summons regarding the matter eight times to date.

The parliament has meanwhile yet to approve a replacement auditor general, with the finance committee refusing to endorse any of the candidates put forward so far by President Mohamed Nasheed.


Former President Maumoon Gayyoom lodges defamation case against Miadhu Daily editor

Former President, Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom has lodged a defamation case against the managing editor of Miadhu Daily, Abdul Latheef, after the news company reported a New York Times article alleging corruption during Gayyoom’s 30 year regime.

A Miadhu Daily report published today says Abdul Latheef is being sued for misleading the public about Gayyoom’s presidency, according to the former president’s lawyer Mohamed Waheed Ibrahim.

Miadhu Daily reports Waheed saying that an article in the June 13 edition of Miadhu Daily, written by Ali Fahudhu, prompted Gayyoom to take legal action against the newspaper.

Gayyoom wishes to receive financial compensation for defamation of his character, reports Miadhu Daily.

Miadhu Daily claims it has not published any information not included in the New York Times article, and the Miadhu report referenced the original report. Miadhu Daily says it views the New York Times as an international media news source, which it used because the information was relevant to the Maldives.

Miadhu Daily reports that Waheed said Gayyoom’s legal team is investigating if the former president can take legal action against Gayyoom’s former cabinet minister, Ahmed Abdulla, who is CEO of Miadhu Daily, and the team is also preparing a case against the New York Times.

The New York Times article said the current Maldivian government is working to reclaim US$ 400 million allegedly stolen from public coffers during Gayyoom’s administration.

The former president has also lodged a defamation case against Ali Hashim, the current finance minister, after he was quoted in the New York Times report saying that if the allegedly looted money could be reclaimed, the current government would not need the foreign aid it is seeking today.


Gayoom to pursue defamation case against Miadhu, Hashim and Naeem over NYT article

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has confirmed he is pursuing legal action against newspaper Miadhu, after it reported that the New York Times had published a story containing allegations he embezzled US$400 million during his time in government.

Spokesman for Gayoom, Mohamed Hussain ‘Mundhu’ Shareef, confirmed that Gayoom was also building a case against Finance Minister Ali Hashim, who was quoted in the NYT article, and former Auditor General Ibrahim Naeem, upon who’s 2009 report the article was largely based, as well as the proprietor and managing editor of Miadhu.

Contrary to earlier reports, Gayoom was not seeking to sue the NYT or the author of the article, Matthew Saltmarsh, Mundhu said.

“I think that’s been misinterpreted, we have no interest in Saltmarsh,” Mundhu said.

“We don’t know him but we’re sure he’s a good journalis, and the NYT is obviously reputed and widely circulated globally,” he said, adding that Gayoom’s response had been to send a letter the NYT editor.

Mundhu noted that according to the NYT article, the journalist Saltmarsh had claimed he attempted to contact Gayoom for his side of the story.

“Mr Gayoom was not in town, but has confirmed he received no calls, either to himself or his secretary,” Mundhu said. “I too was not in town, but my Maldivian mobile was switched on. Mr Saltmarsh says he could not get through, but there was not even an email or a message.”

Mundhu said he did not believe such an article was justified without a right of response, and that Gayoom had written to the NYT editor requesting a right of reply, or a correction.

“This is not the first time we’ve come across issue. We can only ask for the right to respond and the opportunity to put forward our point of view – our letter serves that purpose and there is no need to take Saltmarsh or the NYT to court.”

Mundhu said Gayoom was more concerned with the story being reported in the local media.

“We want to address [the matter of] the ruling party’s engineering of the article for political benefit,” he said.

The foundation of the NYT article was the former Auditor General’s report, he said, “and the Auditor General has been discredited – by the Anti-Corruption Commission, not just us. The report doesn’t stand to scrutiny.”

But he added that comments made by Finance Minister Ali Hashim in the NYT report did not come from the Auditor General’s report – “this US$400 million [alleged embezzlement] is something he’s conjured up in the Haruge (MDP headquarters),” Mundhu said.

“The issue is that whether as a former president or an individual, Mr Gayoom has rights, a family and a reputation to protect.”

Miadhu’s Managing Editor Abdullah ‘Gabbe’ Latheef said he would “be glad to go to court”, and that “already three international journalist associations have offered support and want to send observers to the hearings.”

“Until a court rules that the Auditor General’s report was fabricated, the media has a right to report it – it is a public document. Until then, the media can write about it five times daily if they wish,” he said.

Latheef added that he was looking forward to the opportunity the court case would provide to open the orginal audit reports to public review.

“Then everyone will understand where the US$400 million has come from,” he claimed. “Some people misunderstand the government budget – when you include the private-public companies, such as STELCO, Dhiraagu and MIFCO, US$400 million is nothing.”

Latheef said he believed the local media had done a “responsible job” in reporting the NYT story, “as the NYT is the number one newspaper in the world and is a credible source. There’s no obligation on us to clarify all the facts that the NYT has reported, because it is such a credible source. What about when the Israelis attacked the aid flotilla recently? Should we have gone to Israel to check all the facts for ourselves? No – we have to rely on credible sources, and the NYT is not an anonymous blog.”

“Gayoom is used to attacking people who speak out against him. They used to be taken to jail, now they are taken to court. Maybe one day he will invite them to coffee on the beach,” Latheef said, adding that “there are a lot of diplomats here who are very scared the media will die off because of threats like these.”

Speaking yesterday at the Commonwealth’s media development workshop, Attorney General Husnu Suood acknowledged that if an article was published in the Maldives, even if the source was from abroad, the onus was still on the particular journalist to prove its truth.

“But there are defences available,” Suood noted. “In the regulation on defamation there are certain defences – one is the the defence of truth. In this particular instance, if you are relying on figures given by the government’s Auditor General, then I think that might be a defense.”

Hashim had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.


DRP condemns NYT ‘looters’ article as “cheap propaganda gimmick”

The Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) has issued a statement condemning an article published in the New York Times, in which journalist by Matthew Saltmarsh described former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom as a “looter” and alleged he had misappropriated state funds.

The article further claimed that the present government was working with the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR), a joint initiative of the World Bank and the United Nations, to recover US$400 million allegedly stolen by the former administration.

The DRP stated that the repeated accusations of embezzlement leveled at Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom “are the MDP government’s last ditch efforts to resuscitate its waning public support and confidence in the face of its failure to manage the Maldivian economy.”

“The MDP government, in an year and a half of searching through its ‘presidential commission’, has failed to find anything that they can pin against President Gayoom to defame his character. The MDP government will continue to fail in their sinister plots,” the DRP statement read.

“This latest accusation is no different from that by MDP official Hassan Afeef in the run up to the 2008 Presidential Election. A defamation suit was filed against him. It is notable that Afeef has to date ignored the verdict of the court of the set compensation,” the statement noted, adding that “local MDP-controlled newsletter ‘Miadhu’ has also published an article repeating the many lies in Matthew Saltmarsh’s article.”

The party observed that the allegations in the NYT article were largely based on a 2009 report by Auditor General Ibrahim Naeem, who “was sacked recently following serious acts of corruption and misappropriation of state funds.”

“It is common knowledge that Naeem’s audit reports were both politically-motivated and riddled with inaccuracies. References from such documents are unbecoming of professional journalists, albeit the MDP government utilises them as handbooks to achieve their political objectives. Furthermore, the fact that Finance Minister Ali Hashim had himself provided the quotes for the article is notable,” the DRP statement said.

“The DRP will take all necessary action to alert the international community to the government’s sinister motives behind the allegations against the Former President. We condemn the government for its continued attempts to shroud its incompetence in running the country behind cheap propaganda gimmicks.”

Speaking to newspaper Haveeru, Gayoom dismissed claims in the audit report as “politically-motivated” and “lies from A to Z”, and vowed to “protect myself from defamation” by taking both Saltmarsh and Hashim to court.

“He [the former Auditor General] issued the reports during the 2008 presidential election with certain political motives,” Gayoom told Haveeru.

“The reports were directly targeted at me with an agenda to attack my dignity, just a day before voting began. Moreover, the reports are definitely questionable, since he was sacked by parliament through a no confidence motion,” Gayoom said, insisting he had “never abused state funds.”

Government could be seeking US assistance

Meanwhile, newspaper Miadhu carried unverified claims this morning that Hashim, along with Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, Home Minister Mohamed Shihab and Attorney General Husnu Suood, had rendezvoused in Europe to meet with FBI officials “at an unidentified location in the European continent.”

Hashim told Minivan News he had nothing to clarify as he had “never met FBI officials anywhere in the world.”

The Foreign Minister appeared to be in no hurry to dispel the rumours, however.

“Should that meeting have taken place, obviously we wouldn’t be talking about it,” Dr Shaheed said. “What I can say is that the government is serious about reclaiming stolen assets, and we’re very confident it will happen really quickly.”

He said he doubted Gayoom or the DRP had a viable case against the NYT.

“The DRP should consider the distinct international legalities governing past and present politicians, particularly heads of state. Mr Gayoom should recognise that people in such positions will face criticism.”

“I don’t think they are serious,” he said. “In defamation lawsuits the onus is on public figures to prove malicious intent or reckless disregard for the truth. One must have a lot of money to hire a hotshot lawyer capable of proving that against a particular article by the NYT.”