Opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Deputy Leader Umar Naseer vowed to take legal action against “government officials and opposition figures who accepted bribes from [Indian infrastructure giant] GMR”, following allegations that surfaced on the Dhivehi Post website last week.
Speaking at a joint opposition rally on Thursday night at artificial beach, Naseer told opposition supporters that “those in the government and those among us who took bribes” would receive “just punishment” we will give just punishment.”
That morning the GMR-Malaysia Airports Holding Berhad (MAHB) consortium took over management of Male’ International Airport.
Naseer’s claims comes a week after local media republished allegations that surfaced in an anti-government tabloid website claiming that DRP Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali and Speaker of Parliament Abdulla Shahid each accepted a bribe of US$1 million from GMR.
Both Thasmeen and Shahid, neither of whom attended Thursday night’s rally, have strongly denied the allegations.
“These allegations originated in an internet site called the Dhivehi Post,” Thasmeen told Minivan News last week. “If you go through it you can make a reasonable guess as to who they support.”
The website today published what it claims to be copies of ticket reservations Shahid and Thasmeen made to travel to India via Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Dhivehi Post claims that the two spent 55 minutes in transit at the Delhi airport on October 30 and returned to the Maldives the same day after meeting GMR officials at the VIP lounge.
Meanwhile, at a party rally in Kaafu Atoll Maafushi last night, DRP Deputy Leaders Ali Waheed and Ibrahim “Mavota” Shareef moved to defend the party leaders, condemning efforts by senior members to “divide the party”.
In an apparent rebuke to the party’s other Deputy Leaders Umar Naseer and Ilham Ahmed, Ali Waheed said that disagreements within the leadership did not mean DRP members should “hold rallies with other presidential candidates”.
“Given the state of the country today, the biggest betrayal to the nation and the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party would be to split up this party,” he said.
Defending the DRP Leader from the bribery allegations, Shareef pointed out that “if Thasmeen wanted US$1 million, he would not have had to take an indebted party onto his shoulders.”
In July, four opposition parties in parliament – DRP, People’s Alliance (PA), Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) and Jumhooree Party – signed an agreement to form a united opposition front against the airport privatisation deal.
Speaking to Minivan News last week, Managing Director of GMR Male International Airport Limited P Sripathy described the allegations of bribery as “totally false and baseless, and very disappointing and damaging to our reputation. We have never met any members of the opposition to date.”
“The GMR Group is in Male’ on serious business – to build a world class, benchmark airport that people of Male’ and the Group will be very proud of,” he added.
Addressing supporters at the sparsely attended rally on Thursday night, PA Leader Abdulla Yameen asserted that “auctioning off the airport below price” would bring no economic benefits to citizens.
Referring to the November 3 coup attempt in 1988, Yameen said that the Maldivian people were now experiencing “a second enslavement” in the month of November as handing over airport management to GMR amounted to “economic enslavement”.
Yameen contended that foreign parties were not needed to develop the airport as it made annual profits exceeding Rf200 million (US$15.5 million) and that it did not make “economic sense” to lease a state asset during difficult economic times.
“We built the airport at a time when we spent less than Rf50 million a year from our budget,” he said. “We should be ashamed today.”
He added that local businesses “could easily develop” new duty free shops, and that “it won’t take more than Rf2 or Rf3 million” to build a new terminal.
While building a new runway and alternative landing strip would have been “challenging”, he conceded, “replacing concrete walls of the terminal with glass” does not amount to modernising the airport.
Yameen pledged to take back the airport by moving legislation through parliament to declare “legal status” for the airport.
Other opposition figures who spoke at the rally launched vitriolic attacks on the government, lamenting the loss of “an airport built with the blood and sweat of the Maldivian people”.
Most speakers at the rally alleged corruption in the airport and accused the government of “selling off state assets one by one”.
While DRP MP Ali Arif said that President Mohamed Nasheed “deserves every obscene word in the Dhivehi language,” MP Ahmed Mahlouf alleged that “GMR gave large amounts of money in bribes to the MDP campaign” to secure the deal.
The government has meanwhile flatly denied accusations of any wrongdoing, pointing out that the transaction was overseen by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the financial arm of the World Bank.
Moreover, the government has alleged that opposition to the airport deal stems from the “vested interests” of certain MPs, several of whom it arrested following the resignation of cabinet on June 29 in protest against the “scorched earth politics” of the opposition-majority parliament.
The fuel trade is the most immediately lucrative part of the airport deal, Minivan News understands, and is a key reason behind both GMR’s interest and the government’s decision to award the contract to the Indian infrastructure giant. GMR has told Minivan News it will amalgamate the trade under one umbrella, a decision that will likely affect current third party suppliers.