Police have arrested the managing director of the al-Fathuh Hajj and Umra group for fraud after the company accepted payments from would-be pilgrims in excess of the quota provided by the Islamic ministry.
Musthafa Mohamed, 68, from Maafanu Excel, was taken into custody on Friday (September 12) around 6pm from his residence in Malé.
Police also searched the residence as well as the al-Fathuh office with a search warrant. The Criminal Court has since extended the remand detention of the suspect to 15 days.
The government has announced that the state Hajj Corporation will now make arrangements for the defrauded persons to travel to Saudi Arabia.
The group was provided a quota of 125 by the government, but charged a 100 additional people, most of whom reportedly paid significantly higher than the normal rate of MVR69,000 (US$4,475) under a ‘VIP package.’
The al-Fathuh company had said arrangements would be made for the additional pilgrims under a quota from a foreign country.
Last week, about 25 families protested outside the al-Fathuh office in the capital after 76 expectant pilgrims were told they would not be able to depart for Mecca as scheduled on Monday (September 15).
Police have urged persons who have made payments to the group to contact the economic crime department as soon as possible on 9790048.
Company told ministry of bankruptcy
Meanwhile, at a press conference on Friday, Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed revealed that the al-Fathuh group had informed the ministry that it would not be able to take the 125 pilgrims it was authorised to take to Mecca.
The 125 pilgrims were due to depart for Saudi Arabia tomorrow when the company told the ministry that it was “bankrupt”.
The ministry also discovered that the company had not made payments to the airline and the hotel, Shaheem said.
After the company requested assistance, Shaheem said the ministry arranged for an extension from the airline to make payments as the reservations would have been canceled at 12pm on Thursday (September 11).
“However, the company was unable to do it when the deadline elapsed,” Shaheem said.
Shaheem said a task force had been formed at the request of President Abdulla Yameen to make arrangements to send the 125 pilgrims to Mecca. Yameen himself will also conduct the Hajj pilgrimage later this month.
Expenses for the pilgrims in Mecca and Medina would be covered by the government’s Hajj Corporation, he said.
“Tickets have been taken for everyone who had decided to go to Hajj with the company and had obtained visas,” Shaheem said.
At a meeting with the defrauded pilgrims on Friday night at the Islamic ministry, Shaheem reportedly said that the Maldives was getting “a bad name” as a result of Hajj groups failing to make payments on time to agents in Mecca.
An agent came to the Maldives last week and told the Islamic minister that one Hajj group owed him 1.2 million Saudi riyals, Shaheem revealed.
The money had been owed for years, Shaheem said, noting that it amounts to about MVR5 million (US$324,254).
Quota not reduced
Shaheem said the government to decided to cover the expenses of the defrauded pilgrims because the Saudi Arabian government could reduce the 1,000 person quota provided to the Maldives next year if the full quota was not used.
While the Saudi government had reduced quotas for other countries by 20 percent, Shaheem noted that the Maldives quota was not lowered.
Of the 1,000 pilgrim quota afforded to the Maldives by Saudi Arabia, 500 were reserved by the government’s Hajj Corporation while the rest were divided amongst Hajj groups chosen after a bidding process.
In February, the Civil Court and the Anti-Corruption Commission ordered the Islamic ministry to halt the bidding process and revise the criteria for awarding quotas.
The government-owned corporation meanwhile charged MVR69,965 (US$4,537) per person. Performing the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime is one of the five pillars of Islam.
Hajj Corporation Chairperson Dr Aishath Muneeza told reporters that the corporation would attempt to provide the same quality of service to the 125 pilgrims defrauded by al-Fathuh as it would to the 500 pilgrims who would perform the pilgrimage under the corporation’s care.
Muneeza revealed at Friday night’s meeting that the additional pilgrims would cost the corporation MVR9 million (US$583,658).
In a similar case of fraud involving a Hajj group, the owner of the Maleesha Hajj Group, Ismail Abdul Latheef, is currently on trial for defrauding 175 people of MVR12 million (US$778,000), after they made payments to the company in 2012.