No legal authority for ACC to prevent signing of Nexbis contract, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) did not have the legal authority to order the Department of Immigration and Emigration not to sign a contract with Malaysian mobile security firm Nexbis in 2010, to establish a border control system (BCS).

The apex court today overturned a previous High Court judgment, which itself overturned a Civil Court ruling last year declaring that the ACC did not have legal authority to terminate the contract signed with Nexbis in November 2010.

However, the High Court judgment was appealed by Nexbis at the Supreme Court, which today ruled in favour of the Malaysian company.

The controversial BCS project was terminated by the government in August this year and replaced by the Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES) provided by the US government on August 20.

According to local media reports, today’s Supreme Court judgment was delivered with the unanimous consent of all seven Justices on the court bench. However, Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz Hussain and Justice Muthasim Adnan noted different points to the other five.

Delivering the majority decision at today’s hearing, Justice Abdulla Saeed reportedly said that the High Court violated judicial and legal principles in overturning the lower court verdict, noting that the ACC’s order was made after the agreement was signed.

Referring to domestic contract laws and the ACC Act, the Supreme Court upheld the Civil Court ruling, which had determined that the ACC did not have the legal authority to order the Immigration Department to terminate the BCS project based on alleged corrupt dealings.

The Supreme Court had also previously overturned a High Court injunction blocking the implementation of the BCS project, prompting ACC Chair Hassan Luthfy to claim that the independent body had been rendered powerless.

If this institution is simply an investigative body, then there is no purpose for our presence,” Luthfy said in September last year. “Even the police investigate cases, don’t they? So it is more cost effective for this state to have only the police to investigate cases instead of the ACC.”

Luthfy contended that the ruling had rendered the ACC powerless to prevent corruption, even if it was carried out on a large scale.

“In other countries, Anti Corruption Commissions have the powers of investigation, prevention and creating awareness. If an institution responsible for fighting corruption does not have these powers then it is useless,” he argued.

Corruption allegations

In December 2011, the ACC submitted corruption cases to the Prosecutor General’s Office (AGO) against former Immigration Controller Ilyas Hussain Ibrahim and Director General of the Finance Ministry, Saamee Ageel, claiming the pair abused their authority for undue financial gain in awarding Nexbis the MVR 500 million (US$39 million) BSC project.

Ex-controller Ilyas – brother-in-law of President Dr Mohamed Waheed and current state minister of defence and national security – pleaded not guilty to the charges at the first hearing of the trial on April 10 this year.

Meanwhile, on December 25, 2012, parliament voted unanimously to instruct the government to terminate the BSC agreement with Nexbis.

All 74 MPs in attendance voted in favour of a Finance Committee recommendation following a probe into the potential financial burden on the state as a result of the deal.

In September 2012, the ACC informed the committee that the deal would cost the Maldives MVR 2.5 billion (US$162 million) in potential lost revenue over the lifetime of the contract.

The Finance Committee meanwhile found that the government had agreed to waive taxes for Nexbis despite the executive lacking legal authority for tax exemption.

Following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the US government in March this year to provide a border control system to the Maldives, representatives from Nexbis told Minivan News that the company was uncertain what the MOU would mean for the group’s own border control technology.  The technology has been in use at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) since September 2012.

“We do remain confident that the Maldivian government will honour its obligations under the 2010 concession agreement,” read a statement from lawyers representing the company.

“We are confident also of the support we have received by the Immigration Department in implementing and fully operating the system, but remain cautious of individuals that continue to pose obstacles to prevent the success of this project is stemming the national security issues faced by the Maldives today.”

Concession agreement

Under the concession agreement signed with the Maldives government, Nexbis levied a fee of US$2 from passengers in exchange for installing, maintaining and upgrading the country’s immigration system.  The company also agreed a fee of US$15 for every work permit card issued under the system.

Nexbis in July 2013 invoiced the Department of Immigration and Emigration for US$2.8 million (MVR 43 million) for the installation and operation of its border control technology in line with the concession agreement – requesting payment be settled within 30 days.

Nexbis’ lawyers argued that the company had expected the fee to be included in the taxes and surcharges applied to airline tickets in and out of the country, according to local media.  However, lawyers argued these payments had not been made due to the government’s “neglect” in notifying the relevant international authorities.


Police investigating theft of MVR 500,000 from immigration department

Police are investigating the theft of more than MVR 500,000 (US$32,425) from the Department of Immigration.

The money was stolen from a safe over the weekend, according to a statement from police. The money was reported missing at 9:00am on Saturday.

Police said the thieves climbed over a wall between between Atoll Canteen and the Ghazee building. No details were provided as to how the intruders gained access to the safe.

The immigration department has not officially commented on the theft.


Police deport man arrested in connection with Artur brothers case

The Immigration Department has deported Godzine Sargyasan, the French national who was identified as one of the Artur brothers, in compliance with a police request.

In a statement issued today, police said Godzine Sargyasan had registered a company in the Maldives to invest in the tourism industry, but had obtained an import/export license for products not related to the tourism industry.

According to police he also registered a local investment and became affiliated with gangs in Male’, to the point he was assisting them and became involved in assault.

Police said allowing such persons to do business in the Maldives posed a threat to the national security and put the economy of the country in danger.

In April, police issued statement asking for public assistance in locating Godzine Sargsyan and a Maldivian involved with him. The pair surrendered to police in May.

Local newspapers reported they had been living in the Marble Guest House before surrendering themselves to police. Police later searched the guest house after arresting the two men.

The Criminal Court recently confirmed that Godzine Sargyasan had been charged with assault and battery, cases related to fraud, and providing invalid documents to government institutions.

Photos of the Arturs in the company of two Maldivian cabinet ministers initially emerged on social media, apparently taken during the Piston Motor Racing Challenge held on Hulhumale’ between January 25 and 26.

A company named ‘Artur Brothers World Connections’ was registered in the Maldives in October 2012, with the Artur brothers holding an 80 percent share in a 61-19 percent split.


MPs vote against transferring immigration department under defence ministry

MPs today voted 27-23 against approving President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s decision to transfer the department of immigration and emigration under the defence ministry.

During the debate on the request by the President’s Office to endorse the changes to the defence ministry’s mandate, MP Mohamed Rasheed of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) proposed a motion against approving the changes.

The motion was carried with 27 votes in favour, 23 against and one abstention.

MDP MPs contended that the transfer of the immigration department in December 2012 contravened the constitution. The department was functioning under the home ministry at the time.


Behind the bars: Inside the shelter for the Maldives’ unregistered expats

The Department of Immigration and Emigration’s shelter for undocumented workers in Male’ was opened earlier this year as part of commitments by the state to provide a more “humane” means of tackling the issue of unregistered foreign workers in the country.

Authorities have previously provided few details to the media concerning the plain white building based on Orchid Magu, or what is beyond the black iron bars that adorn the entrance of the site.

Minivan News toured the premises on Wednesday. An immigration official said despite appearances, the bars – open throughout the day – were not for detaining unregistered workers, who are free to leave at any time. Instead they were there to protect workers inside from unscrupulous agents and employers.

“Many choose not to stay here overnight, they will perhaps spend the night at a friend’s place. They come here for support or for food, mainly,” the immigration guide explains.

According to the immigration department no workers are detained at the shelter, which serves as a site to support expatriate workers not registered to work in the country. Officials at the shelter estimate there are presently some 40,000 unregistered foreigners working in the country – a huge proportion given that a third of the Maldives’ population are foreign workers.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali has previously told Minivan News that while almost all foreign workers coming to the Maldives arrive under registered companies, some were finding themselves “illegally used” by employers due to “systematic abuse” of the visa system.

The entire ground floor of the building – mostly an empty hall with a number of makeshift metallic frames that can be converted to beds – is made available for unregistered workers, several of whom watched bemused at the makeshift media tour of the facility taking place in their presence.

The shelter also has a kitchen area open to unregistered workers, as well as a bathroom with a dozen or so toilet cubicles, several sinks and showers. The shower area  looks basic, but the immigration official explains they are designed to be able to cater around 50 people in line with human rights conventions.

“We try to ensure [the shelter] is up to standards for the human rights people, though I’m sure they would still say something,” the guide explains, emphasising that no one is detained on the site.

In cases where foreign workers are found to be working illegally, the Immigration Department also has what it calls a “processing centre” – a gated compound on the island of Hulhumale’ where expatriates are kept before being sent back to their respective countries.

The opening of the shelter this year comes as the Maldives has come under increasing pressure to tackle the issue of unregistered expatriates, with the country appearing  on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking.  The country has appeared on the list for three years in a row.

Migration monitoring

Just above the shelter on the building’s first floor, is the immigration department’s monitoring and repatriation service, which is charged with monitoring immigrant workers being brought to the Maldives.

Immigration Department Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Munaaz, who is in charge of the facility, said that some 3000 unregistered foreign workers had been returned to their respective home countries so far this year. That figure is equal to the total number of expatriates deported during 2012.

Earlier this year, Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali confirmed that authorities had targeted the return of 10,000 unregistered workers by the end of the year.

This pledge to return a predetermined number of expatriates was criticised at the time by the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM), which raised concerns that some workers were being punished for the actions of employers or agents acting outside the law.

Munaaz said the vast majority of foreign workers were brought Maldives legally, though for a number of different reasons many found themselves employed in the country without being correctly registered.

“Sometimes this happens due to a dispute with an employee where they go missing. There are some cases, not many, where an employer will decide to stop taking responsibility for an employee and throw them out onto the street,” he said.

Among services offered by the monitoring service is a special form for “missing migrant workers”.

Munaaz claimed that in all these cases, foreign workers were requested to come to the expatriate monitoring service for assistance, adding that the shelter had been established to provide food and support for foreigners who were victims of illegal employment practices.

The immigration Department said a local helpline service was available for foreign workers on 750 4511.

Munaaz added that the immigration department had recently become aware of individuals posing as recruitment agents who were travelling to airports to poach foreign workers by promising them resort positions or higher pad jobs than the work they may have originally been brought to the country for. Whether these jobs really exist is unknown.

“Now we have started to identify how this is being done and we are working to stop this,” he said. “We know there are agents living here in Male’, some who are foreign nationals from the same countries, and they are bringing people over. We are in the process of breaking these rings.”

Foreign low-wage workers are often lured to the country by such brokers, paying a ‘recruitment’ fee or entering into debt – sometimes as high as several thousand dollars – that is shared between local agents and recruiters in the country of origin, most significantly Bangladesh.

In many cases the workers are then brought into the country ‘legitimately’ by a specially-created paper company, created using the ID of a complicit or unwitting Maldivian national, for the stated purpose of working on a ‘construction project’ of dubious existence.

Senior immigration sources have confided to Minivan News that almost no human verification was undertaken by authorities to ensure workers were genuinely employed once a business or construction project was approved.

Moreover, despite the size and scale of the practice, not a single recruitment agent or labour trafficker has appeared before a Maldivian court.

Public cooperation

Munaaz said that with an estimated 40,000 unregistered workers across the Maldives – a figure some industry bodies like the Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) estimate is in reality likely to be much higher – police and immigration authorities could not alone find a solution.

Although stating that local attitudes towards foreign workers needed to be changed, Munaaz was reluctant to say the Maldivian public at large were responsible for the problem. Instead he said certain local individuals and enterprises were profiting from the exploitation of foreign workers.

“It is maybe just one or two percent [of the population] who have involvement in this, but they are doing a lot of harm to the country,” he said. “It will take time, but the public must take a role for the good of the country,” he said.

Munaaz alleged that anyone walking down by the junction at Chaandhanee Magu and Majeedhee Magu – one of the capital’s busiest intersections – most mornings would be able see migrant workers waiting around the area in the hope of receiving ad-hoc offers of work and daily payment – usually from the back of a van.

He claimed that many people were aware of the practice in the capital, but most only talked about it without taking any action.

Under a clause in the Immigration Act of 2007, Munaaz said the Immigration Department’s legal representatives were now taking action against individuals sheltering or employing unregistered expatriates by issuing fines of up to MVR 50,000 (US$3,240).

However, the figures on the exact number of individuals fined by immigration officials on this basis were not available at time of press.

Munaaz added than rather approaching and checking documents of foreign workers out on Republic Square or other areas of the capital, the Immigration Department was opting to focusing on cooperating with police investigators to perform checks of tea houses, work sites, as well as the market area in Male’ to ensure all foreign workers were registered.

With the number of expatriate workers returned by immigration officials to their home countries for the last five months already matching the number repatriated during 2012, Munaaz claimed that the increased workload was directly related to concerns raised by President Dr Mohamed Waheed.

“President Waheed has been very involved in this after receiving a lot of concerns on islands he has visited about illegal immigrants,” Munaaz said, adding that the formation of the shelter back in January this year was a result of these concerns.

Munaaz said that five months on from the shelter’s formation, his team at the monitoring service were now working overtime, barely handling the number of calls being received by the public related to the issue of unregistered workers.

“We are working on the issue, but previous governments have simply left this matter unattended for so long that there are now more than 40,000 unregistered workers in the country,” he said.

Munaaz said his department aimed to not send anyone out of the country who was believed to be a victim of traffickers or other rights abuses.

In cases where expatriates had been working illegally in the country for several years, sometimes for periods up to a decade, he said the Immigration Department could no longer treat them as victims of smuggling.

One senior immigration source who asked not to be identified told Minivan News this week that the exact manner in which enterprises and individuals were profiting from unregistered workers continued to require investigation.

The problem was not isolated to businesses on inhabited islands, the source said, stating that one of the country’s exclusive island resort properties had recently been found by the Immigration Department to have employed between 50 to 60 foreign staff illegally.

As a result, immigration authorities were in the process of conducting reviews of resort operations around the country, according to the source.

Human trafficking

While the government earlier this year launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, NGOs and institutions continue to identify human trafficking as a significant issue needing to be addressed in the country.

Human rights groups in the Maldives have for instance continued to criticise the present and former governments for failing to pass legislation that would allow authorities to press charges against individuals directly for the offence of human trafficking.  The legal measures to do so are presently under review in parliament.

However, one anonymous source in immigration said that it was still possible to penalise any Maldivian suspected of trafficking foreigners into the country on the grounds of contravening the Maldives Immigration Act, ratified in 2007.

“If a Maldivian tries to go against this law they should be penalised with very heavy fines. The law has been in place since 2007,” the source claimed. “Yet has anyone been fined for illegal immigration activity? The answer is no. The legal authority to do this is there.”


Fictitious labour demand fuelling “systematic” migrant abuse in Maldives

Registered companies across the Maldives are freely abusing visa regulations by wildly exaggerating or even fabricating construction or business projects to traffic foreign workers into the country, an immigration source has alleged this week.

The source told Minivan News that almost no human verification was being undertaken by authorities to ensure workers were genuinely employed once a business or construction project was approved.

This lack of verification was allowing paper companies in the Maldives to submit fictitious contracts or structural designs to the immigration department to obtain a disproportionately high quota of foreign workers.

In theory, a Maldivian company could submit design plans for an existing structure such as Manchester United’s 75,811 seat Old Trafford Stadium – and then be assigned a computer-generated quota of foreign workers, the source claimed.

“Companies are recruiting people [abroad] for their own financial benefit,” the immigration source said. “They are producing the image that they are in need of labour.”

Fictitious applications could be made with little fear of a company or individual facing legal action,  due to the lack of any formal verification process for new building or work sites once authorised by a staff member at the immigration department, the source alleged.

“A company can simply produce a document or structural drawing from the internet, which they can submit online to obtain a work quota,” the source claimed. “If you tried using a design for a building like Velenagee, that is obviously known, but out on the islands [in the country’s outer atolls], verification is much harder,” he said.

The Maldives has appeared on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for three consecutive years. Should the Maldives drop to tier three – the worst category – then the country is expected to face significant reductions in aid and potential travel restrictions on its citizens.

Minivan News was told that even with the implementation of an online visa registration system, the immigration department was failing to cross reference companies registered with the Maldives’ trade ministry to ensure that their stated businesses and labour requirements were genuine.

In one case detected this year, the source said that immigration officials had discovered that one ten-storey construction project in the capital had been given a quota of 120 foreign workers despite already being fully built and furnished.

“If someone is not going to check projects in person, this system is completely open to abuse,” the immigration source added.

Foreign workers were paying as much as US$4,000 to labour brokers to come and work in the Maldives, explained the immigration source, creating an incentive for the creation of false jobs on the Maldivian side. This fee is then divided between traffickers operating in the source country and the Maldives.

The Maldives does not presently have legislation allowing authorities to press charges against individuals directly for the offence of human trafficking – with legislation presently under review in parliament.

However, the immigration source said that it was still possible to penalise any Maldivian suspected of trafficking foreigners into the country on the grounds of contravening the Maldives Immigration Act, ratified in 2007.

“If a Maldivian tries to go against this law they should be penalised with very heavy fines. The law has been in place since 2007,” the source claimed. “Yet has anyone been fined for illegal immigration activity? The answer is no. The legal authority to do this is there.”

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali told Minvian News earlier this week that while almost all foreign workers coming to the Maldives arrived under registered companies, some were finding themselves “illegally used” by employers due to “systematic abuse” of the visa system.

Legislative challenges

Another source who has held senior positions in the Maldives criminal justice system, under both the current administration of President Dr Mohamed Waheed and the government of former President Mohamed Nasheed, said the country faces several challenges in prosecuting human traffickers.

Speaking to Minivan News on condition of anonymity, the source claimed that prosecutors were using outdated legislation set out in the country’s 1967 penal code that had not anticipated a crime such as human trafficking when it was first ratified.

In recent years, the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) worked with foreign organisations such as the Australian government to help draft legislation against human trafficking and people smuggling, according to the source. The bill has also been viewed by their US government to ensure “conformity” with its own requirements.

As a result, the source said that in recent years the PG’s Office had dealt with several cases of alleged human trafficking, which notably included a group of foreigners  found with a large number of forged passports.

However rather than prosecuting the suspects of charges of human trafficking as alleged by the police, they were instead prosecuted on charges of forgery.

“In that case, forgery carried a heavier punishment than any other possible provisions that could be used to prosecute on ‘human trafficking’ charge (i.e Section 88(a) of the penal code). In the Maldives, we don’t have to charge someone for multiple offences if it was committed at the same time,” the source claimed. “Prosecutors have to choose the most dangerous crime and proceed.”

The legal source suggested that in other suspected human trafficking cases raised by police, alleged victims were still provided the opportunity to contact authorities or transfer money abroad, requiring much more scrutiny to identify if those involved may have been smuggled illegally into the country.

“Additionally, because there are no laws defining what human trafficking is, the risk was that if we prosecuted someone for human trafficking and tried to set a precedent, the judges were not exposed (or forward thinking) enough to convict someone of the crime,” the source claimed.

“It was too risky to try something new and risk putting someone so dangerous on the loose. So the general idea was to be cautious.”

With human trafficking legislation remaining under review in parliament, the legal source claimed that “smooth implementation” of any new laws was required to make sure all Maldivian authorities, as well as criminal justice systems across the region, understood their obligations towards prosecuting human trafficking.

Corruption was identified as another major concern by the source concerning the value of illegal labour to the Maldives economy. One former Bangladesh High Commissioner in the Maldives alleged back in 2010 that the exploitation of foreign workers in the country rivaled fishing as the most profitable sector in the national economy after tourism.

The government has in recent months launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers.

Addressing the current scope of unregistered foreign labour, Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) former President Mohamed Ali Janah said earlier this year that an estimated 40 percent of the foreign employees in the sector were thought not to be legally registered.

Considering these numbers, Janah said he could not rule out the involvement of organised crime in certain employment agencies, which supply a large amount of foreign labour to building sites in the Maldives.


“Technical problem” prevented former President Nasheed from leaving, Immigration Department claims

Former President Mohamed Nasheed was prevented from leaving the country yesterday (December 21) to visit his ill father in Bangkok, Thailand due to a “technical problem,” the Department of Immigration and Emigration has claimed.

Nasheed was told by immigration officials on Friday morning that his passport was held because of a court order by the Hulhumale’ Magistrate Court that had been sent to the department on December 18 imposing a travel ban on the former president.

The formerly ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) presidential candidate is currently on trial at the Hulhumale’ Magistrate Court over charges of illegally detaining Chief Judge of the Criminal Court Abdulla Mohamed in January this year.

However, on December 18, the Hulhumale’ Magistrate Court authorised the former President to travel overseas between December 19, 2012 and January 6, 2013. The letter granting permission to travel was signed by Magistrate Hussain Mazeed.

Following the incident on Friday morning, the Hulhumale’ Magistrate Court confirmed to local media that the Immigration Department was informed of the decision on December 18.

In a statement later in the day, the Immigration Department said the court order lifting the travel ban was received and entered into the system.

However, Nasheed was told his passport had been withheld due to a “technical problem with the system,” the Immigration Department claimed.

“The issue has now been identified and fixed a short while ago,” the statement read. The department did not elaborate on the nature of the “technical problem”.

Controller of Immigration Dr Mohamed Ali told Minivan News today that the system error “affected both arrivals and departures from 7:30am to about 2:00pm.”

He added that the incident involving the former President was “the only case” of a passport being held due to the disruption.

“The system at airport did not show the release, while the release was entered on Wednesday (December 18). It was a simple system dependent decision by the duty officer at that time.  We have apologised to [Nasheed] and all who were affected and even have a letter sent to him assuring that he can leave during the specified period,” Dr Ali said.

However, the Immigration Controller told newspaper Haveeru on Friday that Nasheed’s passport was held due to a court order.

“He cannot leave until the court orders [the passport] to be released. When he wants to go somewhere, the court will instruct us to release it within a certain period,” Dr Mohamed Ali was quoted as saying.

Nasheed was reportedly due to leave for Bangkok on a private visit ahead of his father’s surgery.

Former President Nasheed’s office meanwhile issued a statement contending the move blocking the former President’s departure was in violation of the constitution.

The statement noted that article 128 of the constitution entitles former Presidents to “the highest honour, dignity, protection, financial privileges and other privileges entitled to a person who has served in the highest office of the land.”

Moreover, article 41 of the constitution guarantees “the freedom to enter, remain in and leave the Maldives” to every citizen.

“This office condemns in the harshest terms the act by the current government to deliberately obstruct President Nasheed from leaving the country for his father’s operation,” the press release stated.

It added that the Immigration Controller’s claims in the media that a travel ban had been imposed by a court order on December 18 was a “deliberate falsehood.”

The Hulhumale’ Magistrate Court informed Nasheed’s lawyers on Friday afternoon that the Immigration Department was sent the court order lifting the travel ban.

The statement called on the government to “respect the constitution and immediately cease these attempts to harass and hassle President Nasheed.”

The former President’s office also called on the Hulhumale’ Magistrate Court to take action against the Controller of Immigration for making false claims regarding the court.


Immigration Department announces changes to service provision

Immigration services will now be offered solely online, Senior Immigration Officer Ahmed Nadeem has told Haveeru.

Services such as extending visas, renewing work permit cards, and paying deposit money will now have to be done online. He added, however, that people would still be able to visit the office for collection of passports and the payment of visa fees.

Nadeem told Haveeru that this change in policy would reduce waiting times and increase the speed of service provision.

He also stated his belief that the new system would greatly reduce instances of fraud in the immigration process.

It is estimated that the number of immigrants in the Maldives will equal the local population by 2018.


Visa fees to be paid in 3 month lump sum

Recruitment agencies are newly required to pay visa fees for expatriate workers for at least three months, according to new policies at Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA).

The visa fees of Rf250 were previously payable every month. Under the new policy, agencies will be required to submit at least Rf750 when making payments, Haveeru reports.

A MIRA authority told Haveeru that the policy was designed by the Immigration Department.

Recruitment agencies expressed concern over the policy change, allegedly because of the difficulty of providing larger sums of money at once. Others have claimed that it’s a waste of money on workers who are imported for a single month of work.