MDP cries foul over government refusal to honour deal

The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has called on President Abdulla Yameen to honour commitments made to release former president Mohamed Nasheed and other jailed politicians.

Instead of releasing Nasheed on Thursday as rumoured, the state decided to appeal his terrorism conviction. His 13-year jail term, however, has been commuted to house arrest.

Revealing details of the government’s demands for the first time, the MDP said President Yameen had requested opposition backing to amend the constitution to set new age limits of 30-65 years for the presidency and vice presidency, and the impeachment of Vice President Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed.

The government also asked for legislative support for specific projects, later revealed to be a second constitutional amendment to allow foreigners to buy land in the Maldives.

The MDP said it had delivered on all counts by issuing a three-line whip on the first two demands, and a free whip on the controversial foreign freeholds amendment. The party said it had also complied with a moratorium on street protests.

The free whip on foreign freeholds has divided MDP supporters. The party said it had issued a free whip line because it believes in free ownership of land and property, but had reservations that the amendment could lead to foreign, non-commercial logistical installations or military bases being built in the Maldives.

In return, it had asked for freedom for political prisoners, including Nasheed, the dropping of charges against more than 1,000 political activists and reforms to the judiciary and independent institutions.

The government agreed and home minister Umar Naseer made a number of promises during the talks that began on July 1, the party said.

“The MDP believes the government of Maldives must follow through on its commitments before the Independence Day celebrations on July 26,” the party said.

Stressing that it had entered talks with the government in good faith, the MDP said it had hoped to see meaningful reform to the “hopelessly politicised and corrupt” judiciary and independent institutions. Further, the party also wished to usher in a parliamentary system of government for the Maldives.

Nasheed’s legal team on Friday called the Prosecutor General’s decision to appeal the terrorism conviction “a charade,” and said they will make a decision to participate after discussion with the opposition leader’s international legal team.

The lawyers said the appeal could affect ongoing talks between the opposition and the government over the release of jailed politicians.

President’s office spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz Ali said in a tweet yesterday that he did not believe the actions of independent body of the state could “obstruct talks between the government and MDP.”

In a brief statement on Thursday, the PG office said the decision to appeal the conviction was made based on concerns raised over due process in the trial and Nasheed’s request for the PG to appeal the conviction as well as his contentions over procedural violations, insufficient time to mount a defence, and inability to appeal due to the criminal court’s failure to provide a full report and transcripts of the trial within a 10-day period for filing appeals.

Diplomatic pressure had been mounting on President Yameen to release Nasheed, but the international community has been silent since the MDP started negotiating with the government.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) opted to keep the Maldives off its agenda soon after talks began. President Yameen has now asked the parliament for its counsel on leaving the Commonwealth.

The UN working group on arbitrary detention is meanwhile expected to rule on Nasheed’s imprisonment in September or October. In a response to the UN, the government insisted Nasheed must appeal the sentence.

There appears to be no progress on the release of the Adhaalath Party president or two former defence ministers.

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Independence Day celebrations kick off with fireworks

Celebrations for the Maldives’ golden jubilee of independence kicked off on Friday night with a massive fireworks display at the newly renovated Republic Square.

Thousands watched in awe as the night sky over Malé lit up for more than half an hour with the largest display of fireworks the country has ever seen.

President Abdulla Yameen, first lady Fathimath Ibrahim, former presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan oversaw the celebrations. Judges, cabinet ministers, heads of independent institutions and some diplomats were present as well.

Maldives will celebrate 50 years of independence from the British on July 26.

A team of 23 individuals, including students, doctors, pilots and sportsmen cut the ribbons and officially opened the Republic Square before the fireworks display.

State owned Maldives Transport and Contracting Company has built a new musical fountain at the main square. At the center of the fountain is a monument symbolizing unity. The fountain started sprouting water when a group of children carrying traditional water containers poured water inside it.

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Photos courtesy of President’s Office

Housing minister Mohamed Muizz said millions had been spent to renovate the Republic Square. According to the Finance Ministry, a budget of MVR150million (US$9.7million) has been allocated for Independence Day celebrations.

All government buildings, streets, lampposts and hundreds of trees and walls in Malé city have been decked in blinking red, yellow and white neon lights.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena will arrive at 12:45pm today for the official function to be held at the Usfasgandu area tomorrow morning. He is the only head of state to attend Maldives’ golden jubilee of independence.

Other dignitaries from China, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Mauritius, Japan, Bangladesh are expected to arrive throughout the day today.

The government is yet to disclose the full program of events for the weekend. The celebrations include a parade by the army and school brass bands, reopening of public parks, official games at the national stadium and football tournaments.

Former presidents Ibrahim Nasir and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom will receive an honorary shield at the official function tomorrow.

A three hour play, depicting different stages of Maldivian history from the Buddhist-era to the present will take place at the national stadium on July 27.

Bollywood pop star Sanam Puri is to perform in Malé tonight.

The anti-corruption commission is investigating the home ministry’s use of the MVR150million budget.

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Nasheed’s sentence was commuted to house arrest before state decision to appeal

Questioning the state’s decision to appeal a terrorism conviction against former President Mohamed Nasheed, lawyers revealed today that the opposition leader’s 13-year jail sentence was commuted to house arrest on July 19.

“The government of the Maldives has permanently moved President Nasheed to house arrest for the balance of his 13-year term in prison,” the opposition leader international lawyer Jared Genser told reporters in Colombo this afternoon.

The Maldivian high commission in Sri Lanka confirmed the move to AFP. Nasheed’s domestic legal team told Minivan News the decision had been communicated in writing.

The PG office announced the decision to appeal the guilty verdict yesterday amidst rumours that President Abdulla Yameen will pardon Nasheed in exchange for the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) backing for several crucial votes in parliament.

Speaking at a press conference in Malé today, lawyer Hassan Latheef said the legal team believes the government has exerted undue influence over the PG to appeal the case in a bid to appease growing international pressure.

The European parliament, the British prime minister, the US secretary of state, the UN Human Rights Council and various international organisations have called for Nasheed’s release, Latheef noted, adding that the legal team had expected the former president to be pardoned as a result of talks.

But President Yameen could now “tell the international community that President Nasheed’s case is out of his hands,” Latheef suggested.

“We believe that there is intense foreign pressure on the government to release President Nasheed and the case was on President Yameen’s table. But we now believe that the government has sent the case to the prosecutor general’s table,” he said.

The government will be able to tell the numerous foreign diplomats expected to arrive in the Maldives to attend an official function to celebrate 50 years of independence on July 26 that Nasheed’s case has been appealed by the state, Latheef said.

Some diplomats would accept that the president could not intervene in the judicial process or grant clemency before the appeal process is exhausted, he added.

Latheef said the legal team will decide whether or not to participate in the “charade” following consultations with Nasheed’s international lawyers. The state’s sudden reversal of stance may affect ongoing talks between the opposition and the government, lawyers suggested.

Genser meanwhile told reporters today that he was denied a business visa to work in the Maldives last week and was told that he needed further authorisation from the Supreme Court certifying that he was licensed to practise law internationally.

“There is no Maldivian law, regulation, or rule that imposes such a requirement on applicants for business visas who are lawyers – it appears the Supreme Court specially designed this requirement just for me,” he said.

Genser is representing Nasheed along with Amal Clooney, the wife of Hollywood actor George Clooney, and Ben Emmerson, a UN rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights. The international lawyers have filed an appeal at the UN working group on arbitrary detention seeking a judgment declaring Nasheed’s imprisonment illegal.

Appeal

In a brief statement yesterday, the PG office said the decision to appeal the conviction was made based on concerns raised over due process in the trial and Nasheed’s request for the PG to appeal the conviction as well as his contentions over procedural violations, insufficient time to mount a defence, and inability to appeal due to the criminal court’s failure to provide a full report and transcripts of the trial within a 10-day period for filing appeals.

Lawyer Hisaan Hussain noted that Muhsin had repeatedly rejected requests for the state to appeal the conviction, insisting that Nasheed could file an appeal despite the lapse of a 10-day period and that the PG would not appeal a verdict in his favour.

The PG’s sudden reversal of stance while talks seeking Nasheed’s release were ongoing “raises questions about his purpose and intent,” Hisaan said.

Muhsin told the press in May that he believed Nasheed’s appeal had “a high possibility of being accepted at the high court since Nasheed is a former president, since it is related to a judge and since it is a terrorism charge.”

The Supreme Court had shortened the appeal period  from 90 days to 10 by striking down provisions in the Judicature Act a month before Nasheed’s arrest on February 22.

Last month, the High Court, citing lateness, rejected an appeal filed by the Prosecutor General over the acquittal of a defendant on murder charges.

On June 20, President Yameen rejected Nasheed’s appeal for clemency, urging him to exhaust all appeal processes first. The opposition leader’s lawyers say that the Clemency Act grants the president the discretion, on the president’s own initiative, to commute the sentence of any individual convicted of a criminal offence.

The next day, Nasheed was transferred to house arrest for eight weeks.

Shortly thereafter, the MDP and the government began talks on clemency for Nasheed and other jailed politicians as well as the withdrawal of charges against some 1,400 opposition supporters.

Opposition MPs subsequently backed the impeachment of vice president Dr Mohamed Jameel and a constitutional amendment setting new age limits for the presidency and vice presidency. The amendment allowed President Yameen to replace Jameel with the influential tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb.

The MDP also issued a free whip on a second constitutional amendment to allow foreign freeholds in the Maldives. Some 19 opposition MPs, including ten MDP MPs, voted to pass the amendment.

At the fourth meeting of talks last week, MDP representative Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had suggested that Nasheed may be released before July 26.

The UN working group on arbitrary detention is meanwhile expected to rule on Nasheed’s imprisonment in September or October. In a response to the UN, the government insisted Nasheed must appeal the sentence.

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PG to appeal former president’s terrorism conviction

Citing irregularities and rights violations in the terrorism trial of former president Mohamed Nasheed, the Prosecutor General has announced today that he will appeal the criminal court’s verdict.

The decision comes amidst rumors that President Abdulla Yameen will pardon the opposition leader ahead of July 26, the day Maldives marks 50 years of independence from the British.

In a brief statement issued at 6pm, PG Muthaz Muhsin said: “As various parties are raising questions about how the trial proceeded, and as Mohamed Nasheed has said his rights were violated, and that he did not have sufficient time to prepare for the case, and that he did not receive the case documents for an appeal, and since Mohamed Nasheed has asked the prosecutor general to appeal the case, the Prosecutor General’s office has decided to appeal the terrorism conviction against Mohamed Nasheed at the Maldives’ High Court under authority granted to the prosecutor general by article 233(i) of the Maldives’ constitution.”

Article 233 authorises the PG to appeal any judgment, verdict or decision in a criminal matter.

It may take days for the appeal to begin with state offices closed until July 29 for independence day celebrations. The criminal court will now have to issue a trial record and the High Court registrar will then make a decision on accepting the appeal.

Nasheed was found guilty on terrorism charges over the military’s detention of criminal court chief judge Abdulla Mohamed in January 2012.

Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Mohamed Solih, MP of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), said he could not comment as Nasheed’s lawyers were presently discussing the development.

The Attorney General Mohamed Anil today dampened talk of an imminent pardon for Nasheed saying: “Such matters will be dealt with through established procedures in the criminal justice system… It will not happen without my knowledge. I have not received any information yet.”

On June 20, President Yameen rejected Nasheed’s appeal for clemency, urging him to exhaust all appeal processes first. The opposition leader’s lawyers say that the Clemency Act grants the president the discretion, on the president’s own initiative, to commute the sentence of any individual convicted of a criminal offence.

The next day, Nasheed was transferred to house arrest for eight weeks.

The MDP and the government subsequently began talks on clemency for Nasheed and other jailed politicians and withdrawal of charges against some 1,400 opposition supporters.

The opposition has backed several government proposals in hope of freedom for Nasheed, including the impeachment of vice president Dr Mohamed Jameel and a constitutional amendment setting new age limits for the presidency and vice presidency. The amendment allowed President Yameen to replace Jameel with the influential tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb.

The MDP also issued a free whip on a second constitutional amendment to allow foreign freeholds in the Maldives. Some 19 opposition MPs, including ten MDP MPs, voted to pass the amendment.

At the fourth meeting of talks last week, Ibu had suggested that Nasheed may be released before July 26.

The UN working group on arbitrary detention is expected to rule on Nasheed’s imprisonment in September or October. In a response to the UN, the government insisted Nasheed must appeal the sentence.

The opposition leader’s lawyers maintain they have no legal avenue to file an appeal as the Supreme Court had shortened a 90-day appeal period to 10 days, weeks before Nasheed’s trial began.

The High Court, citing lateness, last month rejected an appeal filed by the Prosecutor General over a murder acquittal. Public prosecutors blamed the delay on the criminal court’s failure to issue a trial record, as had happened in Nasheed’s case.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court last week acquitted a convicted drug trafficker citing irregularities similar to that raised by Nasheed’s lawyers.

In the unprecedented ruling, the apex court said the accused was not given access to a lawyer or the opportunity to call defence witnesses.

In a separate development, only four of the nine High Court judges are eligible to hear Nasheed’s appeal. This is because of two factors; three judges were transferred to a newly created appellate court branch in the south on June 23 and two of the three presiding judges in Nasheed’s prosecution were promoted on June 8 to fill two vacancies at the High Court.

Since the Judges Act states that an odd number of judges must preside over appeals, Nasheed’s appeal can still proceed with three judges.

An appeal filed by ex-defence minister Mohamed Nazim was stalled at the High Court when the Supreme Court transferred judges overseeing his appeal to the southern branch.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the European parliament, and influential US Senators have called for Nasheed’s immediate release.

Reporting by Ahmed Naish and Shafaa Hameed. Writing by Zaheena Rasheed.

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Government tight-lipped over rumors of a pardon for Nasheed

Attorney General Mohamed Anil today dampened talk of an imminent pardon for former president Mohamed Nasheed and the commutation of ex defense minister Mohamed Nazim’s jail sentence to house arrest, saying he is yet to receive any information on the matter.

“Such matters will be dealt with through established procedures in the criminal justice system… It will not happen without my knowledge. I have not received any information yet,” he told the press.

Newly appointed vice president Ahmed Adeeb meanwhile dodged answering repeated questions on Nasheed’s pardon at a press conference held on the ratification of a second constitutional amendment that will allow foreigners to own land in the Maldives.

“Our administration will bring about economic reforms and will show generosity and compassion to the public. And God willing, in the instance we have to issue pardons, we will do so,” he said.

At a separate press conference, foreign minister Dunya Maumoon dismissed rumors that Nasheed had been invited to the official function to celebrate 50 years of independence on July 26.

“Former president Nasheed is currently serving a sentence after being found guilty in court of law so I don’t think an invitation will be sent to attend a ceremony,” she said.

Nasheed was transferred to house arrest in late June. His trial was widely criticised by foreign governments and international bodies including the UN over lack of due process.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the European Union parliament and influential U.S. Senators have called for his immediate release.

The government and the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) are engaged in negotiations over Nasheed’s freedom, clemency for jailed politicians and withdrawal of charges against some 1400 opposition supporters including the president of Adhaalath Party Sheikh Imran Abdulla.

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the MDP’s parliamentary group leader, suggested last week that Nasheed may be released by July 26. His remarks came following a third meeting of talks between the MDP and the government.

However, at the same press conference, home minister Umar Naseer said the government had made no commitments to release jailed politicians, but reiterated that the government stands ready to make compromises for long-term stability.

The opposition has backed several government proposals this week in the hope of freedom for Nasheed. These include a first amendment to the constitution, which sets new age limits of 30-65 years for the presidency and vice presidency, and the impeachment of vice president Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed.

The age limits allowed President Yameen to replace Jameel with influential tourism minister Adeeb. Some 70 MPs of the 85-member house approved Adeeb’s nomination yesterday.

The backing of some 19 opposition MPs yesterday was crucial to pass the second constitutional amendment on foreign freeholds. The MDP had issued a free whip for the vote.

The fourth meeting of talks between the MDP and the government was scheduled for Tuesday. But it did not take place due to the extraordinary parliament session on foreign freeholds.

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Gayoom’s call for referendum on foreign freeholds dismissed

Dismissing former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s call for a public referendum on foreign freeholds in the Maldives, vice president Ahmed Adeeb said today: “The former president has raised his personal concerns. But the president of Maldives today is President Abdulla Yameen.”

Gayoom, the leader of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) and half brother to President Yameen, urged the president to seek public opinion on ratifying the constitutional amendment.

In a letter sent to President Yameen and shared with the media, Gayoom said previous governments had refrained from selling parts of Maldivian territory to prevent influence over the country’s independence, sovereignty, and resources.

This is the first time Gayoom has publicly opposed Yameen.

Addressing Gayoom’s concerns, newly appointed vice president Adeeb said: “How can we govern if we are to call referendums on every issue? We’ve only been in government for two years. We also have aims, hopes, and responsibilities. President Yameen has to be accountable and fulfill his pledges. Not everyone will agree on every step he takes for economic reform.”

People are resistant to change, but approving foreign freeholds is a change that must happen, Adeeb said at a press conference today. The decision had been difficult for President Yameen, he added.

President Yameen ratified the amendments today.

Meanwhile, the president’s office yesterday said President Yameen will not respond to any letters shared with the media before the president responds to the letter.

The unprecedented provisions will allow foreigners who invest more than US$1billion to purchase land. At least 70 percent of the project site must be reclaimed.

The constitution previously prohibited foreign ownership of any part of Maldivian territory, but allowed leasing of land for up to 99 years.

The amendments were approved within a day after they were submitted to the People’s Majlis. Parliamentary standing orders were changed beforehand to fast-track the process of passing a bill into law.

Some 70 MPs of the 85-member house voted in favor. Gayoom’s son, MP Ahmed Faris Maumoon, had voted for the amendment as well as Adeeb’s appointment as the new vice president yesterday.

Rumors had spread this week that Gayoom opposed Adeeb’s appointment. However, the PPM leader has repeatedly denied favouring a particular candidate, stating that the appointment of a deputy is the sole prerogative of the president.

Attorney General Mohamed Anil meanwhile said the president is not obliged to hold a referendum on foreign freeholds. Article 262 (b) of the constitution states the president is obliged to call referendums on changing provisions in the bill of rights or the presidential and parliamentary terms.

Ten MPs of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and nine MPs of the Jumhooree Party (JP) also voted in favour of the unprecedented changes.

MPs opposed to the move expressed concern over possible Chinese military expansion in the Maldives, and the lack of time to review the amendments.

Dismissing concerns over the establishment of military bases, Adeeb said today: “We are not going to sell our lands to any country. We are trying to do business here. We want to bring in many corporate investments. We are not going to sell land to other countries, whether its China or Saudi Arabia. We are not gifting our land to other parties. We want to mobilize investments worth at least US$1billion.”

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Amendments raise fear of Chinese military expansion in the Maldives

Proposed constitutional amendments to allow foreign ownership of land in the Maldives will allow China to establish military facilities in the Maldives and destabilise the Indian Ocean, a source within the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has said.

The amendments will allow foreigners who invest in a project worth more than US$1 billion to purchase land, meaning it can facilitate “foreign non-commercial logistical facilities” on such plots.

Since the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) holds a majority in the parliament, the government can allow and regulate military activity on such land through other legislation, the source who wished to remain anonymous said.

In a more carefully worded statement shared with the media, the MDP said: “Being a center right political party, the Maldivian Democratic Party in principle believes in free ownership of land and property. Nevertheless, the amendments can facilitate foreign non-commercial logistical installations in the Maldives.

“The MDP Parliamentary Group Leader Hon. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih speaking on the bill on Tuesday night reiterated MDP’s call to guarantee national security, safeguard stability, peace and security of the Indian Ocean. This therefore forms the MDP position.”

The amendment will be put up for a vote today.

A three-fourths majority or 64 votes is required to amend the constitution. A total of 62 MPs voted to accept the amendment at midnight on Tuesday at an extraordinary parliamentary session. Parliamentary standing orders have been amended to fast-track the process of passing a bill into law.

PPM MPs were not responding to calls at the time of going to press.

Majority leader Ahmed Nihan said last night that the amendments will not affect the Maldives’ sovereignty, while MP Ali Arif said no land will be given for military purposes. The ruling party says the amendment would increase economic growth and facilitate sustainable investment in the Maldives.

President Abdulla Yameen has declared a foreign policy shift to the East last year. Chinese president Xi Jingping was the first head of state since Yameen assumed power and the first Chinese president to visit the Maldives.

During the visit, the Maldives agreed to become a partner in China’s maritime silk route, a trade route from China’s Fujian province to the Mediterranean Sea via South Asia and East Africa.

China is providing grant and loan assistance to the Maldives to build a bridge between the capital and the airport. Chinese companies are involved in airport development and have now been handed islands for resort development.

In January, the MDP alleged the government was making plans to award parts of south central Laamu Atoll to China for a military base. The Chinese embassy promptly dismissed the allegations as “completely false.”

“It is a common knowledge that China pursues a national defense policy that is defensive in nature,” read the press release. “China does not maintain any military in any foreign country.”

Several independent and opposition MPs voted against the amendment last night, contending it will allow the government to sell the Maldives off as it gives unprecedented access to foreign parties to operate in the Maldives, especially with the enactment of the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Act last year.

The SEZ Act gives investors and developers major tax breaks and exemption from regulatory provisions in financial, environmental and labour laws.

At the time, the opposition contended that the SEZ law would pave the way for money laundering and other criminal enterprises, undermine the decentralisation system and authorise a board formed by the president to openly sell off the country without parliamentary oversight.

The government and the MDP are currently negotiating for the release of opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed and other jailed politicians.

The opposition has backed several government proposals including the impeachment of vice president Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed on Tuesday and a constitutional amendment setting new age limits of 30-65 years for the presidency.

President Abdulla Yameen has now appointed the influential tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb as the new vice president. His nomination will be approved by the People’s Majlis today.

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Second amendment on foreign land ownership likely to pass

Key opposition MPs have expressed support for a ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) proposed constitutional amendment to authorise foreign ownership of land or freeholds in the Maldives. Some 62 MPs voted to consider the amendment and have sent it to a special committee for review.

A three-quarters majority or 64 votes will be needed to amend the constitution. The ruling coalition only controls 48 seats in the 85-member house.

With 62 MPs voting to consider the bill, it is likely to pass into law. The final vote is expected on Wednesday afternoon.

Speaking at tonight’s extraordinary sitting of parliament, MP Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the parliamentary group leader of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), expressed support for the amendment, but said the government must consider Indian Ocean security in awarding plots of land to foreign parties.

The bill comes amidst increased attempts by the government to woo Chinese and Middle-eastern investors.

The constitution currently prohibits foreign ownership of any part of Maldivian territory, but allows leasing of land for up to 99 years.

The proposed amendments will allow foreigners who invest in a project worth more than US$1 billion to purchase land. At least 70 percent of the area when the project is completed must also be reclaimed land.

Jumhooree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim said the amendment was needed in an interconnected world. Land ownership by foreigners on a freehold basis was allowed in developed countries, he added.

The minimum threshold of US$1 billion worth investment will enable the government to develop the education and health sectors, he continued, and thanked President Abdulla Yameen for his “wisdom.”

Tonight’s sitting was scheduled after changes to the standing orders to fast-track the process of passing a bill into law was approved at this morning’s sitting. The legislative process includes three main stages and usually takes weeks or months. But under the new rules, a bill can be debated and passed into law on the same day.

The amendment comes amidst negotiations between the government and the MDP. The opposition has so far backed several unprecedented measures proposed by the government in hope of freedom for jailed opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed and other politicians.

The bill is the second amendment proposed to the constitution since it was ratified in 2008. MPs in June passed the first amendment to the constitution to set new age limits of 30-65 years for the presidency. Subsequently, vice president Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed was impeached today.

Coerced

PPM MP Ahmed Nihan – who submitted the amendments (Dhivehi) on behalf of the government today –  said contrary to “misleading” media reports, the amendments would not allow the government to sell large islands or lose sovereignty over Maldivian territory.

The PPM parliamentary group leader said the purpose of the amendment is to attract “extremely large” foreign investment and spur economic growth and infrastructure development. Nihan said Singapore developed despite the lack of natural resources because the small island state “opened up” to foreign investment.

PPM MP Ali Arif emphatically stressed no land will be given for military purposes.

MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa backed the bill saying that the MDP’s policy is to create a real estate market and encourage home ownership. “We are very happy the ruling party now accepts our development policies. I know the government has an investor willing to invest US$1 billion. We must make use of that opportunity.”

Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof reminded ruling party MPs of their campaign to evict Indian airport developer GMR and said: “This bill amounts to selling off our land. If things continue like this, we might sell off our wives, children and the boxers we are wearing. As we celebrate 50 years of independence, our land must remain ours.”

The former ruling party MP suggested the JP and MDP had been coerced to support the amendment in exchange for freedom for Nasheed and a removal of a freeze on Gasim’s tourism companies.

Meanwhile, JP MP Ali Hussein said that Maldivians wanted clean water and sanitation instead of “mega projects.”

“They are worried about corruption. They want to divert funds wasted on corruption to development. They want tertiary hospitals,” he said. He said that the PPM wanted to award freeholds because it had failed to attract investment through the government’s flagship special economic zones (SEZ) legislation, which was passed in August last year. It gives investors tax breaks and relaxed laws.

He further warned of unchecked corruption and undue influence of large corporations if the amendment passed due to weak oversight institutions and lack of accountability.

Opposing the amendment, MDP MP Rozaina Adam said the government had failed to attract foreign investors because of a weak and politicized judiciary. MDP MP Fayyaz Ismail meanwhile said he supported the amendment in principle, but said extensive public consultations were necessary before he could back the bill.

Special economic zones

In April 2014, President Abdulla Yameen said he the SEZ law would enable investors to have “freeholds” in the country and allow investors “to engage in really, really long gestative projects.”

The opposition contended that the SEZ law would pave the way for money laundering and other criminal enterprises, undermine the decentralisation system, and authorise a board formed by the president to “openly sell off the country” without parliamentary oversight.

But the government maintained that the law was necessary to attract large-scale foreign investments and to launch ‘mega projects,’ which President Yameen has said would “transform” the economy through diversification and mitigate the reliance on the tourism industry.

The mega projects include the construction of a bridge connecting Malé to Hulhumalé and the development of a ‘Youth City’ in the reclaimed artificial island.

In January, President Yameen said 75 percent of the country’s population could be resettled in Hulhumalé and urged residents of islands with small populations to migrate to the new city. According to the 2014 census, the population of the Maldives stands at 341,256, of which 133,019 people resides in Malé.

Other mega projects envisioned by the government includes the development of a transhipment port in the Maldives’ northernmost atoll. The Ihavandhippolhu Integrated Development Project (iHavan) also involves the development of an airport, offshore docking and bunkering facilities, an export processing zone, real estate businesses, and tourism facilities.

In June, a group of Saudi Arabian investors reportedly visited Ihavandhippolhu. The Saudi Arabian government has also provided US$1 million as grant aid to finance the feasibility project.

Additional reporting and writing by Zaheena Rasheed. 

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Constitutional amendment on foreign land ownership up for debate tonight

A constitutional amendment to allow foreigners to own land in the Maldives will be up for debate at an extraordinary parliament sitting tonight, only hours after it was submitted to parliament.

The amendment allows foreign parties to own land for projects worth US$1 billion. Ownership is dependent on the parties reclaiming more than 70 percent of the plot.

The constitution at present prohibits foreigners from owning land under any circumstances, but allows the government to lease land to foreign parties for up to 99 years.

The amendment is the second amendment proposed to the constitution since it was ratified in 2008. It was proposed by Ahmed Nihan, MP of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) and the majority leader.

Nihan said he has proposed the amendment to increase economic growth and to facilitate sustainable investment. It will allow foreigners free holds in the Maldives, and to transfer ownership or lease their plots.

The amendment comes amidst negotiations between the government and the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The opposition has so far backed several unprecedented measures proposed by the government in hope of freedom for jailed opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed and other politicians.

MPs in June passed the first amendment to the constitution to set new age limits of 30-65 years for the presidency. Subsequently, vice president Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed was impeached today. He is expected to be replaced by tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb.

The amendment may be put to a vote as early as tomorrow. Tonight’s sitting was scheduled after the parliament today approved changes to the standing orders to fast-track the process of passing a bill into law.

The legislative process includes three main stages: a preliminary debate on the floor, an extensive review by a committee involving consultations with stakeholders and experts, and a final debate on the committee’s report followed by a vote. However, under the new rules, all three legislative stages can be carried out consecutively and a final vote could be held on the same day as a bill is submitted.

The changes were approved with 56 votes in favour and 24 against.

The PPM in 2014 enacted a law on special economic zones with tax breaks and little regulation to incentivize foreign investment. The government previously said one SEZ project could transform the economy, but has so far failed to attract investment.

The amendment on foreign ownership comes amidst increased attempts by the government to woo Chinese and Middle-eastern investors.

The proposed change includes amending Article 251 of the constitution and adding a new chapter to the constitution. Below are some important provisions.

Article 302: If a project meets the set criteria, he Maldivian government may grant any party a freehold in the area designated for the project

Article 304: A project can only be approved if it meets the following criteria
(a) A project approved under a law passed by the People’s Majlis
(b) An investment of US$1billion in the territory of the Maldives
(c) When the project reaches completion, at least 70 percent of the land must have been reclaimed from the ocean and visible at medium tide

Article 305: The parliament can increase the threshold for investment by a law. However, such a change will not apply to projects approved before its enactment.

Article 251: No foreign party shall own land in the Maldives, except under the circumstances specified in Article 302. Allowing foreigners to own land under Article 302 does not undermine the Maldivian state’s sovereignty over its territory and does not amount to loss of territory.

Reporting by Hassan Mohamed, Ahmed Naish and Zaheena Rasheed. 

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