Police arrest al-Fathuh Hajj group managing director for fraud

Police have arrested the managing director of the al-Fathuh Hajj and Umra group for fraud after the company accepted payments from would-be pilgrims in excess of the quota provided by the Islamic ministry.

Musthafa Mohamed, 68, from Maafanu Excel, was taken into custody on Friday (September 12) around 6pm from his residence in Malé.

Police also searched the residence as well as the al-Fathuh office with a search warrant. The Criminal Court has since extended the remand detention of the suspect to 15 days.

The government has announced that the state Hajj Corporation will now make arrangements for the defrauded persons to travel to Saudi Arabia.

The group was provided a quota of 125 by the government, but charged a 100 additional people, most of whom reportedly paid significantly higher than the normal rate of MVR69,000 (US$4,475) under a ‘VIP package.’

The al-Fathuh company had said arrangements would be made for the additional pilgrims under a quota from a foreign country.

Last week, about 25 families protested outside the al-Fathuh office in the capital after 76 expectant pilgrims were told they would not be able to depart for Mecca as scheduled on Monday (September 15).

Police have urged persons who have made payments to the group to contact the economic crime department as soon as possible on 9790048.

Company told ministry of bankruptcy

Meanwhile, at a press conference on Friday, Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed revealed that the al-Fathuh group had informed the ministry that it would not be able to take the 125 pilgrims it was authorised to take to Mecca.

The 125 pilgrims were due to depart for Saudi Arabia tomorrow when the company told the ministry that it was “bankrupt”.

The ministry also discovered that the company had not made payments to the airline and the hotel, Shaheem said.

After the company requested assistance, Shaheem said the ministry arranged for an extension from the airline to make payments as the reservations would have been canceled at 12pm on Thursday (September 11).

“However, the company was unable to do it when the deadline elapsed,” Shaheem said.

Shaheem said a task force had been formed at the request of President Abdulla Yameen to make arrangements to send the 125 pilgrims to Mecca. Yameen himself will also conduct the Hajj pilgrimage later this month.

Expenses for the pilgrims in Mecca and Medina would be covered by the government’s Hajj Corporation, he said.

“Tickets have been taken for everyone who had decided to go to Hajj with the company and had obtained visas,” Shaheem said.

At a meeting with the defrauded pilgrims on Friday night at the Islamic ministry, Shaheem reportedly said that the Maldives was getting “a bad name” as a result of Hajj groups failing to make payments on time to agents in Mecca.

An agent came to the Maldives last week and told the Islamic minister that one Hajj group owed him 1.2 million Saudi riyals, Shaheem revealed.

The money had been owed for years, Shaheem said, noting that it amounts to about MVR5 million (US$324,254).

Quota not reduced

Shaheem said the government to decided to cover the expenses of the defrauded pilgrims because the Saudi Arabian government could reduce the 1,000 person quota provided to the Maldives next year if the full quota was not used.

While the Saudi government had reduced quotas for other countries by 20 percent, Shaheem noted that the Maldives quota was not lowered.

Of the 1,000 pilgrim quota afforded to the Maldives by Saudi Arabia, 500 were reserved by the government’s Hajj Corporation while the rest were divided amongst Hajj groups chosen after a bidding process.

In February, the Civil Court and the Anti-Corruption Commission ordered the Islamic ministry to halt the bidding process and revise the criteria for awarding quotas.

The government-owned corporation meanwhile charged MVR69,965 (US$4,537) per person. Performing the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime is one of the five pillars of Islam.

Hajj Corporation Chairperson Dr Aishath Muneeza told reporters that the corporation would attempt to provide the same quality of service to the 125 pilgrims defrauded by al-Fathuh as it would to the 500 pilgrims who would perform the pilgrimage under the corporation’s care.

Muneeza revealed at Friday night’s meeting that the additional pilgrims would cost the corporation MVR9 million (US$583,658).

In a similar case of fraud involving a Hajj group, the owner of the Maleesha Hajj Group, Ismail Abdul Latheef, is currently on trial for defrauding 175 people of MVR12 million (US$778,000), after they made payments to the company in 2012.


Over 70 unable to perform pilgrimage after paying dues

Families of 76 expectant pilgrims who made payments to the al-Fatuh Hajj Group protested outside the company’s offices today after they were unable to depart for Mecca.

According to local media, the group was provided a quota of 118 by the government, but charged 76 additional people.

Online news outlet CNM reported that the group agreed to reimburse the disgruntled clients within 10 days. About 25 families reportedly gathered outside the group’s offices this afternoon.

Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed declared this week that Hajj groups that accepted payments from people in excess of their quotas would be disqualified next year.

Of the 800 pilgrim quota afforded to the Maldives by Saudi Arabia, 400 were reserved by the government’s Hajj Corporation while the rest were divided amongst Hajj groups chosen after a bidding process.

The government-owned corporation charged MVR69,965 (US$4,537) per person. Performing the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime is one of the five pillars of Islam.


Hundreds queue to submit forms to Hajj Corporation

Additional reporting by Ahmed Naish

Hundreds of would-be pilgrims have been queuing outside Dharubaaruge since last night to submit forms to the Hajj Corporation.

The corporation began accepting application forms at 9:00am this morning.

Of the 800 pilgrim quota afforded to the Maldives by the Saudi Arabian government, 400 were reserved by the Hajj Corporation. The remaining 400 pilgrim quota are to be divided among local Hajj groups selected through a bidding process.

The bidding process for the remaining allocations was halted last week, however, as the Anti-Corruption Commission last week ordered the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to revise the criteria for awarding quotas.

As of this morning, the number of people queuing outside Dharubaaruge reportedly exceeded 400 people.

The government-owned corporation announced last week that its rates for the pilgrimage were MVR69,965 (US$4,537) per person. Maldivians who have performed the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in the past would not be eligible.

Chairwoman Dr Aishath Muneeza told the press that the corporation will accept application forms for a one week period. The selected individuals will be announced after processing the forms and verifying information, she said.

Muneeza said the corporation’s goal was to provide quality service for the 400 pilgrims.

The corporation signed an MoU with the Maldives National Defence Force earlier this year for officers to assist pilgrims during their trip to Saudi Arabia.

According to the corporation, the hotels chosen for accommodating pilgrims will have ATM machines, internet, hot and cold water, coffee and tea at all times and room service at least once every day.

Other amenities and services include loading and unloading of luggages, 24-hour religious lectures, and laundry services. The corporation said it would allow a maximum of four people in each room.

For those with long-term Hajj plans, the corporation has introduced a “saving package” which can be purchased with an initial payment of MVR500.

The clients of this package will be allowed to make the Hajj pilgrimage when 75 percent of the total payment is completed on an installment basis.

Performing the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime is one of the five pillars of Islam.


ACC, Civil Court orders Islamic Ministry to halt bidding process for Hajj groups

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has ordered the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to halt the bidding process for selecting Hajj Groups to accompany Maldivian pilgrims and to revise the criteria for awarding quotas.

Following an investigation into alleged corrupt practices, the ACC revealed in a press statement today that it identified nine issues with the regulations (Dhivehi) formulated by the ministry for evaluating bid proposals, which was published in the government gazette on February 12.

The ACC investigation was prompted by a complaint lodged at the commission alleging that the regulations were being used to unduly benefit certain parties.

The ACC decision came on the heels of a stay order (Dhivehi) issued by the Civil Court this morning ordering the ministry to halt the bidding process pending a ruling on the validity of the regulations.

The stay order or injunction was granted in a lawsuit filed by two Hajj groups – the Abatross and Minaa groups – contending that the bidding process was unfair.

Among the issues identified by the ACC was a new requirement for interested parties to submit bank statements – dating back six months – of the company’s management account and money depositing account.

Companies were also required to submit details of employees who would be accompanying pilgrims as well as documents proving their experience.

While 15 percent of marks were to be awarded for experience, the ACC noted that the regulations did not specify how experience would be measured or graded.

Moreover, while companies were required to submit details of ticket prices along with their proposal, the ACC noted that it would depend on the quota, which was to be decided by the ministry following evaluation of bids.

In addition, the commission found that there were no guidelines to evaluate the proposed price (45 percent of marks) and the quality of service (30 percent), whilst the ministry had not set a ceiling for the quoted price.

Based on its findings, the ACC ordered the ministry to revise the issues identified in its investigation report – shared with the ministry today – before resuming the bidding process.

Of the 800 pilgrim quota afforded to the Maldives by Saudi Arabia, 400 were reserved by the government’s Hajj Corporation while the rest were to be divided amongst companies chosen from the bidding process.

The proposals were to be submitted to the Islamic Ministry at 10:30am today.

The bidding process for Hajj groups was marred by controversy in 2013 as well. In May, the High Court overturned a Civil Court ruling in which the trial court ordered the Islamic Ministry to reevaluate several unsuccessful bids presented by local Hajj groups.