US and Maldives hold first bilateral trade talks

The first official trade talks between the Maldives and US governments took place this morning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Malé.

The meeting was the first bilateral discussion since the signing of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in 2009 to provide a forum in which bilateral talks can proceed.

“The first meeting discussed procedures for more robust engagement, as well as touched on topics such as labor, intellectual property, and the investment climate,” said the US following this morning’s meeting.

Minister of Economic Development Mohamed Saeed told the US delegation at today’s meetings of the government’s plans to diversify the economy away from its reliance on tourism, as well as the recent changes to the investment climate with the Special Economic Zones Act.

He also noted that further changes to legislation were planned that would ease foreign investment. The US State Department has previously noted that “the ambiguity of codified law acts as a damper to new investment” in the Maldives.

Despite the council not having met before today, total trade between the two countries has more than doubled between 2009 and 2013. Saeed told press today that the Maldives’ major export to the US was fish products, expressing his hope that Maldivian fishermen could take advantage of marketing opportunities within the US.

Speaking at a press conference after today’s meeting, Saeed said the government had plans to more than triple the current amount of fish exports to the US by 2018.

Part of the initial agreement, signed five years ago, stated that both parties would endeavour to hold talks at least once a year. The United States-Maldives Council on Trade and Investment – established by the TIFA – is designed to monitor trade flows, investigate new opportunities, and remove impediments to further investment.

Economic development minister Saeed represented the Maldives alongside State Minister for Economic Development Faris Maumoon, while the US delegation was led by Assistant Trade Representative for South Asia Michael Delaney along with Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Colombo Andrew Mann.

“Our team comes from multiple U.S. government agencies and has been looking forward to returning to the Maldives to learn more about both the trade and investment conditions and the labor environment,” said Delaney in a press release from the Colombo embassy.

The press release noted that the US has TIFA agreements with almost 50 countries in every region of the world.

(SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade)

Not traditionally a key contributor to the Maldives’ billion dollar tourism industry, US visitors represented less than 2 percent of the market share in 2013.

US engagement with the Maldives has traditionally concerned foreign assistance to enhance maritime security, counter terrorism, and counter narcotics cooperation with Maldivian forces.

Officers and crew from the USS Rodney M Davis visited the Maldives earlier this month, with Vice Admiral Robert Thomas noting the critical nature of the Indian Ocean to regional security.

Rumours of a Status of Forces Agreement – opening up the possibility of US forces being stationed in the Maldives – surfaced in 2013, before incoming President Abdulla Yameen announced that any such deal would be likely to damage relations with neighbouring countries.

The US has also pledged to help the Maldives adapt to the negative effects of global climate change, pledging US$7.2 million (MVR111 million) for a global climate change adaptation project last year.

2013 also saw US private equity firm Blackstone acquire both the Maldives’ major seaplane operators for an undisclosed sum, as well as the introduction of the US designed PISCES border control system.

The PISCES system was utilised in the controversial arrest of alleged Russian hacker Roman Seleznyov by US security personnel while in the Maldives in July. Seleznyov was subsequently transported to the US via Guam where he awaits trial.


Criminal Court fines man for eating during fasting hours of Ramadan

The Criminal Court has on Thursday fined a man MVR150 for eating during the fasting hours of Ramadan in 2011.

The local media identified the man as Subhee Ismail Mahir of Maafannu ward.

Online newspaper Sun reported that the Prosecutor General’s Office had charged Subhee for breaking the fast by drinking a Coca-Cola bottle standing near a shop named ‘Monalals’, without any valid reason to do so.

Sun reported the Criminal Court’s ruling as stating that this was the first time Subhee was found guilty of a crime of this type and that he is sentenced under article 88 of the penal code.

According to the paper the court ordered him to pay the fine in seven days.


MBC, broadcasting commission summoned to parliamentary committee over televising “politicised” religious sermon

A religious sermon televised live on Television Maldives (TVM) was interrupted for violating the state broadcaster’s guidelines, Maldives Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Chairman Ibrahim Umar Manik told a parliamentary sub-committee today.

The MBC chairman along with members of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission were summoned before the Independent Institutions Committee following complaints by MPs of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) that the sermon by religious NGO Jamiyyathul Salaf preacher Sheikh Adam Shameem Ibrahim infringed the rights of the party’s presidential candidate.

“We definitely do not consider [televising the sermon] as anti-campaigning against a particular candidate using religion. [But] around 11:35pm, because his talk was changing a little, we stopped the live [broadcasting],” Manik was quoted as saying by local media.

The state television decided to approve the live broadcast after considering whether it involved either a politician or political party and after determining if the Islamic Ministry had authorised the sermon, Manik explained.

Asked by MPs whether he had heard the Sheikh’s criticism of the MDP’s guest house policy, Manik said MBC will evaluate the content of the sermon and take measures.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Rozaina Adam, a member of the sub-committee, explained that the complaints alleged that the religious scholars politicised the sermon titled ‘Andhalus,’ which MDP MPs contended resembled negative campaigning more than a religious sermon.

Rozaina said that MBC Chairman Manik told the committee that the MBC did a background check on the two sheikhs that delivered the sermon to determine if they had previously been in any political parties or if they were affiliated with any political party. Manik claimed that the background check showed that the sheikhs were not involved in political activities.

According to Rozaina, MDP MP Ali Waheed in the meeting noted that Sheikh Shameem had recently visited his constituency and told the people of the area that MDP would kill him if former President Mohamed Nasheed was re-elected and openly campaigned against the party’s candidate.

Rozaina observed that Sheikh Shameem last night talked against MDP policies such as introducing mid-market tourism but did not reflect on more important issues in terms of religion such as murder, gang violence and drugs.

“The MBC Chairman told the MPs that they cut the live feed when the Sheikhs speech was getting politicised,” Rozaina said. “But I don’t know if they actually cut the live feed.”

The sermon last night was organised by NGO Salaf, attended by senior Adhaalath Party members and broadcast live on all local television channels with the exception of MDP-aligned Raajje TV.

The sermons were delivered by Salaf preachers Sheikh Adam Shameem and Sheikh Ahmed Sameer under the title “The Fall of Andalus (Spain).”

Advertisements on social media stated that “the fall of Andalus (Spain) is an event Muslims will never forget. Why did it happen? What lead to the fall of this great Muslim state and what lessons can we draw from this. We present to you ‘Andalus’ by Sheikh Adam Shameem and Sheikh Ahmed Sameer.”


Speaker Shahid resigns from DRP, “one can read between the lines,” claims MDP

Speaker of Parliament Abdulla Shahid has today confirmed his resignation from the government-aligned Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) amid rumours of his defection to the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

“As of today I have resigned from DRP. I shall continue to avail every opportunity to serve our nation and its people,” Shahid tweeted today.

However, Shahid declined to comment on speculation that he would be defecting to the MDP.

“I have left DRP as I’ve announced via Twitter.  Other than that, I have no comment today,” he said via SMS.

DRP Spokesperson Zeena Zahir confirmed to local media today that Shahid’s resignation letter was submitted to the party’s office.

Speaking at a rally in Addu City last night, MDP MP Ali Waheed claimed that Shahid would move to the former ruling party.

Meanwhile, MDP Spokesperson MP Hamid Abdul Gafoor told Minivan News that, “Shahid resigned from DRP and he has not denied a possible switch to MDP, but he has not announced such a switch officially either.”

“It is speculated and he has assisted us [the MDP] a lot, but I can’t say for sure because we are very hands off. It is his decision to make,” Hamid added.

“A meeting between Shahid and MDP may occur April 19 but it’s not confirmed,” he said. “Although everyone is being very coy, one can read between the lines.”

Local media reported recently that three other DRP MPs – MP Mohamed ‘Colonel’ Nasheed, MP Ali Azim and MP Hassan Adil – were also preparing to join the opposition.

The supposed reason for their defection, as reported in local media, was a clash among the party’s MPs.

Media reports also speculated that Shahid’s resignation and the possible defections of MPs resulted from the fallout of  a clash within the DRP parliamentary group over its wavering stand on no-confidence motions against Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed.

A source in the MDP alleged to Minivan News that DRP Leader MP Ahmed Thasmeen Ali brokered a “last minute deal” with the government in exchange for DRP MPs abstaining in the no-confidence votes.

Newspaper Haveeru meanwhile reported today that Shahid signed for MDP yesterday (April 14) and that an official announcement would be made at a rally planned for the weekend.


Party switching adding to lack of public confidence in parliament: Transparency Maldives

Political figures and civil society organisations have expressed concern at a perceived accountability failure within the Maldives’ democratic system, which they allege allows MPs to switch freely between rival parties for personal gain.

Local NGO Transparency Maldives claimed the lack of mechanisms for investigating the alleged use of incentives to encourage MPs to transfer to other parties had done very little to “allay fears” among the general public of parliament being a corrupt institution.

Ibrahim Shareef, Deputy Leader of the government-aligned Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), claimed while MPs were not necessarily having their allegiance bought by rival parties, there was “always a temptation” for elected officials to transfer to a party expected to come to power. He claimed such activities were likely a factor in growing public disillusionment with democracy.

The issue arose after Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MP Ilham Ahmed was reported in local media as stating this his allegiance was “not for sale”, despite his “love and admiration” for Jumhooree Party (JP) Leader Gasim Ibrahim.

“Gasim is someone whom I love very much. He is a very good friend of mine since Television Maldives and through my teenage years. But loving or being close to someone is not reason to change parties,” Haveeru reported Ilham as saing.

While aware of MP Ilham’s comments, JP Spokesperson Moosa Rameez maintained it was against the values of the party to offer incentives to encourage MPs to join up.

“We have our doors always open for people who believe in our policies to join us. There have been no attempts made to bring Ilham to JP ,” he told Minivan News.

The JP is a coalition partner of the PPM within the government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik.

Corruption fears

Transparency Maldives Project Director Aiman Rasheed maintained that a lack of investigative mechanisms and regulations within the Majlis to outline rules for MPs wishing to switch political parties had helped to further erode public trust in elected officials.

Rasheed pointed to a report published by Transparency International last year concluding that 90 percent of a surveyed group of Maldivians believed that the People’s Majlis was the most corrupt of the country’s institutions.

The “Daily Lives and Corruption: Public Opinion in Maldives” report surveyed 1001 people in the Maldives between April 23 and April 29 of 2011 to capture public perception of corruption in the country.

Rasheed maintained that reports and allegations of MPs switching to other political parties for incentives was one of a number of factors that had led to dwindling trust in the country’s parliament.

“The problem is that all these claims [of MPs switching parties or being bought] remain allegations. No one is doing any investigation into these claims and these is no interest in doing so,” he claimed.

“What this serves to do is erode trust in parliament, which our Public Opinion in Maldives report found to be seen as the most corrupt national institution. Parliament is not doing anything to allay these fears and it is really hard to verify such allegations.”

Rasheed claimed that Transparency Maldives was concerned that parliament was failing to do its duty by providing details of MPs’ interests and finances to the public.

He stressed that although efforts were taken to try and make an MPs assets and interests publicly available, parliamentarians themselves failed to agree on procedure for doing this.

Party switch

Ahead of presidential elections scheduled for later this year, Shareef warned there was a “real danger” MPs would switch to rival parties to protect their political careers, regardless of ideology or political allegiance.

“The Maldives is in a transition state to a democracy, however the situation has been very volatile in the past five to six years,“ he claimed.

Shareef claimed a lack of understanding within the country about the workings of a democratic system had also led to difficulties following a switch from autocracy after general elections were held in 2008.

“Democracy is a word we all talk about.  But the Maldives is a mostly youthful nation that chose to believe that democracy would bring solutions to all our problems. However, over the last few year that had been growing disillusionment with [former President] Mohamed Nasheed,” he claimed.

Shareef alleged that politicians on both sides of the country’s political divide sought to be in power by making unrealistic promises spread through what he believed was mostly privately-owned, politically biased media services.

“The media is being controlled and used as a tool to mislead [island] communities about MPs. There is always a temptation for MPs to go where the wind blows strongest,” he claimed.

“If it looks like a party might be coming to power, many MPs without a strong ideology might choose to switch to them to ensure they can keep their well-paid political positions.”

Shareef claimed that rather than earning condemnation from constituents for switching their political allegiance, MPs would at times decide to swing towards parties that would provide them with the greatest benefit in line with voter preference in their communities.

“Royalist stance”

As well as criticising the ideology of the opposition MDP, Shareef also hit out at coalition partner the PPM, which he accused of favouring a “royalist stance” towards leadership in the country.

The PPM was formed back in 2011 after a split between supporters of current DRP leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali and those of his predecessor and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Gayoom had previously been the autocratic ruler of the country for 30 years from 1978 to 2008, when he was defeated in the country’s first democratic elections by former President Mohamed Nasheed.

Shareef accused the PPM of holding a deeply conservative ideology in favour of what he labelled a constitutional monarchy. He claimed such an ideology was focused on maintaining the former President’s legacy through his immediate heirs.

“They represent a very deeply conservative ideology of invoking a golden age of 30 years [of autocratic rule],” he said. “If you carefully observe, the top ladder of the PPM represent a legacy of Gayoom that will be maintained though his children.”

Shareef contended that traditionally, the president of the Maldives seemed as far away and distant to the everyday lives of the Maldivian people as the president of the US.

“Until recently, people saw the president as someone with divine authority to rule the country from Male’,” he said. Shareef claimed that efforts to change would be difficult.

When contacted by Minivan News today, PPM MP and Parliamentary Group Leader Abdulla Yameen said the party was busy with its congress and internal elections to decide on its key positions ahead of presidential elections later this year. He declined to comment on the issue.


MDP would consider halting protests for “substantial” high-level talks

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has said it will not rule out halting ongoing protests to facilitate fresh “high-level talks” with its political rivals, but would only do so should it see  “substantial” commitments from government-aligned parties.

President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s government meanwhile stated it will not consider reconvening talks between senior politicians and former President Mohamed Nasheed until he ceases the alleged “harassment” and “threats of violence” against its ministers.

Proposed “Roadmap” talks were launched in February with the stated aim of overcoming the political deadlock resulting from the controversial transfer of power that brought President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan into office. Former President Nasheed and his party  continue to allege that Waheed came to power in  a “coup d’etat” – and that the government is illegitimate.

Convenor of the roadmap talks, Ahmed Mujuthaba, on July 12 announced that a series of “high-level” discussions will be held between President Waheed and the leaders of the country’s man political parties after 16 previous attempts had resulted in “no breakthrough.”

The last round of the UN-mediated talks, held at Vice President Waheed Deen’s Bandos Island Resort and Spa in early June, collapsed after parties aligned with the government presented the ousted Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) with a list of 30 demands.

The list included calls that the MDP “stop practising black magic and sorcery”, “stop the use of sexual and erotic tools”, and “not walk in groups of more than 10”.

MDP MP and Spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor told Minivan News today that while the party’s protests that it maintains are “largely peaceful” were “totally within” the law, it would not be a “big deal” to stop the street demonstrations if it would help secure meaningful talks.

However, Ghafoor claimed that the party was ultimately sceptical over the commitment of government-aligned parties to ensure “substantial” and “worthwhile” dialogue.

“We have always maintained dialogue is the best way to proceed in the current situation,” he claimed. “What we have seen in the last party talks has just been ridiculous demands such as the issues about keeping crows and using black magic. We found out as a party that we are not dealing with serious people.”

According to documents said to have been provided to the international community by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, former President Nasheed has over the last week offered to stop ongoing street demonstrations to facilitate high level talks – but only if certain conditions are met by his political rivals.

The conditions stated in the document include addressing possible outcomes of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) presently investigating the events during and leading up to February’s transfer of power.  The CNI has been given a deadline of the end of August to concludes its report.

The MDP is also said to have requested allowing only the participation of parties with an elected parliamentary representative to attend the talks.  Such a condition would effectively rule out the participation of President Waheed.

Speaking to Minivan News today, President’s Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza claimed that the government had been attempting since February 16 this year to hold high-level talks with the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to facilitate talks on resolving the current political situation.

However, he denied that the government had called for an end to the MDP’s ongoing protests, claiming instead that it was more concerned by the alleged “unlawful” behaviour of opposition supporters such as in the “harassment” of government officials during demonstrations in recent weeks.

“There has been harassment on several occasions of late by the MDP,” he claimed. “The government will not yield to threats of violence.”

Abbas claimed that in negotiating over continuing potential talks, the government had also refused to negotiate regarding addressing any potential outcomes of the CNI.

“Nasheed has continued to insist on doing this,” he claimed. “But we have said that we refuse to interfere with the country’s judiciary.   We have been clear that we will not negotiate on the CNI or do anything that may compromise its work.”

In a statement released last week, the government called for Nasheed and his supporters to stop “violent activities” in order to ensure any high-level  talks could conclude “fruitfully”.

“Former President Nasheed’s supporters have been agitating and protesting on the streets at times with violent incidences for the past two weeks,” the statement read. “He and his supporters have been harassing government officials for the past five months indulging in violent attacks including the burning of the gender minister’s car, a police motorcycle and a newly constructed police building.”

Foreign Ministry view

According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing, discussions took place last Thursday, (July 26) between Ahmed Mujuthaba, President Waheed and UN Resident Coordinator Andrew Cox to convey a message that Nasheed would conditionally agree to end the MDP protests.

According to the document, the conditions set by the MDP required high level talks to resume at the “highest Level”, with the discussions taking into account the outcomes of the CNI’s findings on top of the existing six-point agenda set for the all-party talks.

The government was said to have responded the following day with five conditions that included:

  • All talks are held in the Maldives
  • The nine parties previously involved in the talks should continue to take part
  • Participants must be at the level of party deputy leaders or higher
  • The previous six-point agenda remained in place without adding the CNI to the discussion or anything that might “influence” its conclusions
  • The MDP agree in writing not to continue street protests for a “period of time” before talks resume

The briefing document claimed the MDP responded by calling on the government to only allow political parties with a parliamentary representation in the discussions. The opposition party said it would then put a stop to ongoing protests that have taken place over the last few weeks once talks continued.

The opposition party also said to have called for any agreed agenda to include the outcomes of the CNI.

By Sunday (July 29), the government was claimed to have responded that talks between the MDP and coalition parties be conducted on the basis of a “two-track” system based around political discussions and parliament.  The government also called for all parties including the MDP to refrain from holding protests.

The proposal was also said to have called for the agenda on the previous all party talks to remain unchanged, with the MDP addressing any issues regarding the CNI through parliament.


Committee of National Inquiry cannot wait for international assistance: Shafeeu

Head of President Mohamed Waheed’s Committee of National Inquiry (CNI), Ismail Shafeeu, has said the committee cannot wait for international assistance as they proceed with an inquiry into the controversial transfer of power on February 7.

“Due to the nature and importance of this issue, I do not believe we can wait for assistance from the UN system or Commonwealth system or wait for a consultant to arrive. If Maldivian sources cannot fully answer the legal questions or other issues that arise, then we will discuss with foreign lawyers, pay them any required fees and proceed,” Shafeeu told local media on Thursday.

President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan charged the three member presidential commission with assessing the circumstances that led to Nasheed’s resignation and has asked the committee to publish its report by May 31. Nasheed alleged he was deposed in a coup d’état.

The Commonwealth, the EU and foreign governments including India and America have called for an impartial and independent investigation into the transfer of presidential power. The Commonwealth’s Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) has said it “strongly felt that there should be international participation in any investigative mechanism, as may be mutually agreed by political parties in Maldives.”

President Dr Waheed’s Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza told Minivan News the government has now requested UN and Commonwealth assistance. “We believe we will get this assistance,” Riza said.

The CNI would decide on the extent to which international actors would participate in the inquiry, Riza said, but added that the government wants foreign expertise on formulating recommendations based on the CNI’s findings.

The ousted Malidivian Democratic Party (MDP) and local civil society groups have criticised the committee on its failure to solicit cross-party support regarding its composition. CNI head Shafeeu previously served as the Defense Minister under former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Consequently, the MDP has said it does not recognise the CNI.

Speaking to Minivan News, Aiman Rasheed from Transparency Maldives said: “It is imperative that the CNI solicits international aid. When we met with the CNI previously they raised concerns over their capacity, especially in hiring a legal team. This is the first time this has happened in the Maldives, and there is much to learn from international experience.”

Approach Nasheed

According to the CNI’s mandate, the committee will not be conducting a criminal investigation. Speaking to local media on Thursday, the CNI said it had not yet interviewed any senior officials from Nasheed’s administration, but had conducted interviews with police and military officers.

The CNI website says it had spent 35 hours interviewing 37 individuals by April 3, almost two months after the change of government.

MDP lawyer Hisaan Hussein said CNI’s failure to interview former administration officials “raises questions over the kind of work the committee has been doing, especially given the amount of time that has passed now.”

The committee will approach former President Nasheed after conducting background research. “We will send a request [to see Nasheed] and see what happens then. We don’t think there is a reason for him not to give us information,” Shafeeu said.

Coup question

CNI Member Dr Ibrahim Yasir Ahmed said the committee will address whether the Nasheed had been ousted in a coup.

“We will answer everything we can based on the information we gather. We will hold debates on the question of whether it was a coup or not,” Yasir said.

The CNI was in the process of obtaining foreign legal assistance on the question, Yasir added.

Transparency Maldives’ Aiman Rasheed said the inquiry was “a stepping stone for national reconciliation. If this doesn’t work, we may end up in a more chaotic situation.”

MDP concerns

CNI Member Dr Ali Fawaz Shareef reiterated its call for MDP’s support in the inquiry process. Shareef said attempts to hold discussions with MDP were underway.

“MDP has publicly said they do not have confidence in this commission. Before we can proceed, we first have to know the details of their concerns,” Shareef said.

The MDP has released several statements outlining its concerns over the CNI.

“The Investigation team must include Maldivians who enjoy the trust of all parties as well as respected foreign experts. It must also have a mandate to look at events leading up to the resignation of President Nasheed as well as police brutality before and after the resignation,” a February 15 statement read.

Responding to the establishment of the CNI on February 22, the MDP said: “[The CNI] has been conceived and imposed by those parties allied to Dr. Waheed without any consultation with MDP. It does not include any eminent international experts. And the inclusion of individuals who held Cabinet posts during the autocratic government of former President Gayoom, including the appointment of a Chair – Mr Ismail Shafeeu – who had held various ministerial posts under former President Gayoom including the position of Defense Minister at a time of widespread human rights abuses in the country, suggests that no effort has been made to ensure independence and impartiality.”

As MDP and civil society concerns over the CNI remain unadressed, several MPs have now called for the investigation of the transfer of presidential power to be conducted through Majlis.

CMAG and the EU, among other international groups, have backed MDP’s calls for early elections in the Maldives.