Former Nasheed employees deny media claims of excessive PR spending

Additional reporting by Zaheena Rasheed

Former members of President Mohamed Nasheed’s press team have denied charges of ‘excessive’ spending on PR during his term, arguing the Maldives had enjoyed an enviable international reputation on democracy, human rights, and the environment.

Yesterday (January 14), Haveeru published an article titled ‘Excessive state expenditure on President Nasheed’s film and press team’, claiming the President’s Office had spent MVR2.86 million (US$185,000) on three British employees.

According to Haveeru, the President’s Office spent MVR1.16 million on Communications Advisor Paul Roberts, MVR1.05 million on lawyer Jude Laing and MVR650,000 on Climate Change Advisor Mark Lynas.

Sun Online also reported having obtained the same documents this week (January 13).

Responding to questions regarding President Abdulla Yameen’s frequent trips abroad, President’s Office Spokesman Ibrahim Muaz told Minivan News the day before (January 12) that he would gladly comply with the spirit of the Information Act: “even if president Nasheed’s travel expenses and information on how many foreigners he employed, paid by the state, was requested”.

The President’s Office was not responding to calls at the time of publication.

Roberts has today said he had been employed with the press team under former Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair for a monthly salary of MVR29,000 in 2009 and MVR34,000 from 2010 onwards.

“During President Nasheed’s tenure, the Maldives achieved an enviable international reputation, and was widely hailed internationally as a beacon of democracy and human rights. The country and its president also became leading global voices in the fight against climate change,” he said in an email.

Roberts noted that former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had employed PR firm Hill and Knowlton at a total cost of MVR26 million (US$1.6 million) while Nasheed’s successor Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan hired Ruder Finn for a reported MVR2.3 million (US$150,000) per month.

Lynas – author of prize winning book ‘Six Degrees: Our future on a hotter planet’ – said he had worked pro bono for Nasheed during the first few months of his appointment as Climate Change Advisor in 2009 before later being paid a small stipend of US$950.

In an email to Minivan News, he said his responsibilities included providing scientific advice on the latest evidence and projections for climate change impacts, and suggestions on how the Maldives could further its international climate advocacy work on plans to become carbon neutral by 2020.

For the duration of his posting, Lynas was based in Oxford, UK. However, he attended various climate meetings as a Maldives climate advisor – including UN negotiations in South Africa, Mexico, Chile, Malawi, and Samoa.

“During the period of my employment, under President Nasheed’s administration, the Maldives was one of the most visible nations in the world in terms of diplomacy and influence in climate change,” Lynas said.

“Unfortunately, events since then have shown that other political leaders and forces do not share basic values of human rights, democracy and freedom of the press – sadly this has undermined the country’s reputation on the international stage, on climate change as well as other issues.”

Haveeru also said it had obtained documents that show the President’s Office bore the expenses of the San Francisco based Actual Film crew during the filming of the ‘Island President’.

The award winning documentary was produced at a cost of US$1.5 million with funds from the Ford Foundation, the Sundance Institute, American Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Atlantic Foundation.

The paper did not reveal the amount spent on the crew of Actual Films, but said leaked documents did not reveal details of the expenses born by the state.

Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party suggested responses to this week’s media coverage should be obtained from the individuals concerned. Minivan News is awaiting a reply from Actual Films and Jude Laing.

Related to this story

Termination of misappropriated state funds investigation cost government MVR66 million

President’s Office spent MVR30 million in excess of approved budget in 2011, audit reveals


Police interrogate, briefly detain DQP leaders over “slanderous” allegations

Police interrogated and briefly detained leaders of the minority opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) Thursday night, after the President’s Office requested an investigation into “slanderous” statements alleging the government was working under the influence of “Jews” and “Christian priests” to weaken Islam in the Maldives.

DQP council members former Justice Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed and ‘Sandhaanu’ Ahmed Ibrahim Didi were summoned for questioning at 8pm Thursday night. Former Attorney General and presidential candidate in 2008, Dr Hassan Saeed, accompanied the pair as their lead lawyer.

Speaking to press outside the police headquarters shortly after 10pm, Dr Jameel contended that the government was trying to silence dissent by arresting those who speak out against corruption and intimidation of the judiciary “with a serious warning of destroying democracy in the Maldives in its infancy”.

“By God’s will, we now have the certainty that will we will put this current President [Mohamed Nasheed] in jail for a long time,” he asserted.

Sandhaanu Didi was meanwhile taken to Dhoonidhoo detention island after midnight and released around 7:00pm on Friday night. DQP had filed a case at the Criminal Court at 3:45pm challenging the legality of the detention and seeking reasons for his arrest.

In July 2007, Didi was sentenced to life imprisonment by the former government for distributing the dissident Sandhaanu newspaper online and allegedly fomenting unrest and revolution. His role in the pro-democracy reform movement was recognised by Amnesty International and the US State Department.

Before entering the police station Thursday night, Didi insisted to reporters that his insinuation of the government’s anti-Islamic agenda was true, holding up a booklet titled ‘President Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy the Islamic faith of Maldivians.’

“We brought Nasheed to power by mistake. Nasheed is a madman,” he claimed, calling on the public to “rise up and defend Islam.”

Meanwhile a group of DQP supporters gathered outside the police headquarters to protest, during which DQP Deputy Leader Abdul Matheen was briefly detained for “disobeying a police order” and released after midnight.

“Suppression of free press”

The police involvement provoked a flurry of strong criticism from opposition parties, which have accused the government of resorting to dictatorial tactics, intimidating political opponents “out of desperation” and undermining freedom of expression.

Both the main opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) – which formed a coalition with DQP last year – and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) led by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom have condemned the government’s “suppression of the constitutional right to free expression.”

In a press statement issued today calling on the international community to intervene, PPM condemned the current administration for “harassment and intimidation” of privately-owned media outlets, arguing that such actions have “created an atmosphere of fear and repression in Male’.”

The ‘December 23 coalition’ of eight opposition parties that united to ‘Defend Islam’ also released a statement on Friday calling for the immediate release of the DQP senior member and condemning the “act of cowardice.”

“The December 23 coalition assures all citizens that we will not be deterred by the intimidation from the government but will continue on with renewed vigor in the face of such adversity for our religion and country to ensure that our rights are protected,” the statement read.

“Invalid offence”

A statement by DQP meanwhile explained that Didi was to be charged under section 125 of the penal code drafted in the 1960s, which states “Where a person makes a fabricated statement or repeats a statement whose basis cannot be proven, he shall be punished with house detention for a period between one to six months or fined between Rf25 and Rf200.”

Noting that the provision was “one of the most frequently invoked clauses by the 30-year rule of President Gayoom to suppress press freedom and dissenting views,” DQP argued that the liberal constitution adopted in 2008 and decriminalisation of defamation in 2009 rendered the offence of slander or lying “invalid.”

“Article 69 of the constitution prohibits application and interpretation of fundamental rights under the constitution restrictively,” the statement explained, adding that article 68 requires the interpretation of fundamental rights “in accordance with prevailing practices in democratic countries.”

Meanwhile, following his interrogation Dr Jameel tweeted: “Nasheed is relying on archaic laws to suppress opposition voices but he calls himself a democrat.”

The former Civil Aviation Minister under President Nasheed also alleged that police were continuing to “harass me and I am expecting to be taken illegally at any time.”

According to local media reports, Sandhaanu Didi has been summoned to the police headquarters again at 8.30pm tonight.

“Racist, bigoted and anti-Semitic”

Sandhaanu DidiAppearing on opposition-aligned private broadcaster DhiTV last week, Sandhaanu Didi had alleged that the government was “operating under the influence of Christian priests” and had been “attempting to spread irreligious practices and principles in the country.”

In response, the President’s Office issued a statement on Thursday condemning the remarks as “racist, bigoted and anti-Semitic.”

“The DQP is playing politics with religion. They are siding with religious extremists to wage a campaign that is racist, anti-Semitic and deeply unpleasant, in an effort to damage the government. I condemn the DQP, its leader Dr Hassan Saeed, and the council members involved for their disgraceful behaviour” Zuhair said at last week’s press conference, where he announced the government’s decision to ask police to investigate the pair along with DhiTV.

Zuhair added that opposition parties were “stooping to the politics of the gutter… out of political desperation”, pointing to a string of victories in recent by-elections for the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) “and the success of government policies, such as universal free health insurance, which was introduced on January 1.”

“The outburst by the DQP council members is the latest in a torrent of intolerant slurs made by opposition parties in recent weeks, in an apparently co-ordinated effort to undermine the government’s moderate Islamic stance,” the President’s Office statement reads.

On December 23, opposition parties and a coalition of NGOs organised a mass demonstration to ostensibly ‘Defend Islam’ and accuse the government of an hidden agenda for securalisation.

“Slander and bald-faced lies”

In his weekly radio address yesterday, President Nasheed insisted that the government “did not wish for the slightest disruption to freedom of expression” and would not react to criticism with police action.

“However, when deliberate slander is spread about the government to mislead the public – especially the false claim that the government is trying to introduce other religions in the Maldives – in my view, the government has a responsibility to clear its name and refute the allegations,” he explained, reiterating that neither the ruling party nor the government “would ever attempt to bring another religion into the country.”

He added that the government should take action against deliberate falsehoods spread to “create discord between the public and myself, my party or this administration and cloud their view of the government.”

Meanwhile at last week’s press conference, Press Secretary Zuhair noted that the former government carried out an investigation while Dr Hassan Saeed was in the cabinet into MDP’s sources of funding and foreign backers, which cleared the fledgling party of alleged ties to Christian missionaries.

After declaring “unconditional” support for candidate Nasheed ahead of the second round run-off of the October 2008 presidential election, Dr Hassan Saeed said at the closing rally of the campaign that the anti-Islamic allegations were “bald-faced lies.”

“The Maldivian government carried out efforts with funds from the Maldivian treasury, with money from the state budget and using experts from England to see if there was any connection between Mohamed Nasheed or MDP to Christianity,” he revealed.

“They carried out a thorough inquiry. That project looked into whether MDP received funds from foreign parties to spread Christianity. But what did the inquiry the Maldivian government carried out with Maldivian funds show? There is no connection between Mohamed Nasheed or MDP to Christianity.”

Dr Saeed’s running mate in 2008, former Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed explained in an interview with Minivan News in June 2011 that the previous administration hired UK security and private investigation firm Sion Resources in 2007 for a surveillance operation dubbed ‘Operation Druid.’

“The [Gayoom] government may have wanted to see what was going on. What these operations did was try to see who was who. And a lot of the operations the government felt were against it came from Salisbury, and I think the government of the day felt justified in engaging a firm to look into what was going on,” Dr Shaheed revealed.

“We’re talking about people who they had deported from the Maldives for proselytisation, people involved in all sort of activities. They felt they needed to check on that, and what came out was a clean bill of health. Nothing untoward was happening, and these people [MDP members working in exile] were by and large bona fide.”

The accusation from the Gayoom campaign that MDP and Salisbury Cathedral were conspiring to blow up the Islamic centre and build a church was “just a mischievous suggestion, a very mischievous suggestion,” Dr Shaheed said.

“Hassan Saeed and I – the last election rally we had, October 7 2008 or thereabouts, the last rally in our campaign against Gayoom, at the time everyone was accusing each other of being non-Muslim, and this accusation that the MDP was non-Muslim was getting very loud,” he continued. “So we came on stage and said we were former government ministers and that we were aware about this allegation against MDP and that Gayoom had hired a firm to look into this allegation, and that their report had confirmed there was no such connection to MDP. Both of us said this on record.”


The President will not apologise for Pillay without Parliament: Zuhair

President Mohamed Nasheed will neither condemn nor apologise to the people over the statements made by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay about flogging, Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair has said.

Zuhair explained that the comments were made before Parliament, which has not yet spoken against the comments.

He said the President would respond after “the head of the particular state body cites a valid reason to speak against Pillay’s comments.”

During her visit in November, Pillay told Parliament that flogging as a punishment for extra-marital sex was one of the most degrading punishments for women, and asked that the government issue a moratorium on the Shariah-based penalty.

According to Haveeru, Zuhair said that former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom earlier made statements similar to those of Pillay.

The demand that the President apologise for Pillay’s remarks is one of five demands made the coalition which protested in defense of Islam on Friday, December 23. Since then, the government taken steps to address the demands which include removing SAARC monuments in Addu, preventing Israeli airlines to operate flights into the Maldives, closing down brothels and places where prostitution is practiced, and reversing the decision to declare areas of inhabited islands uninhabited in order to permit the sale of alcohol.


Contentious religious unity regulations polarise religious factions

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair has denied that the President’s Office brought any changes to the religious unity regulations drafted by the Islamic Mnistry, refuting allegations made by the Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari.

Islamic Minster Bari had told local media that the religious unity regulations were sent to the President’s Office and changed “the way they want it”, and that the ministry was now revising the regulation.

He also said that the Ministry would not give consent for the regulations to be gazetted before revising it thoroughly.

Zuhair said that Dr Bari had made his remarks not in the capacity of a cabinet minister, “but more as an ally of the Adhaalath Party.”

“We did not bring any changes to the religious unity regulations,” he said. “The first half of it was drafted by the then State Islamic Minister Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed and the other half by current State Islamic Minister Sheikh Hussein Rasheed.”

He said there were rules in the regulation that were inconsistent with the government’s policy and had asked the Ministry to comply with that policy.

“It is a responsibility of all the government ministries to uphold the government’s policy,” he said. “There should be no ministry that has to go against the policy.”

Minivan News understands that certain high-profile persons met with the President prior to the commencement of drafting the regulations and requested the President support the drafting of the regulations in a way that would stop the Maldives National Broadcasting Commission (MNBC) from broadcasting live sermons of Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed.

The President reportedly stated that freedom of speech was vital in a democracy and dismissed the idea.

Recently local religious NGOs Jamiyyathul Salaf and the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives requested the President not to gazette the religious unity the way it was drafted, citing concerns that the new regulations could be employed to silence religious NGOs.

The Islamic Foundation has also filed a case in the High Court, claiming that the Religious Unity Act of 1994 was inconsistent with the constitution of the Maldives and should be invalidated.

“How can a regulation enacted under an unlawful Act be valid, there is a case we have filed in the High Court to invalidate the Act,” said Ibrahim Fauzee, president of the NGO. “We call on the government to wait until the case in High Court reaches a conclusion.”


Cabinet to discuss request to rename Thinadhoo next week

The cabinet will discuss a request by the council of Thinadhoo in Gaaf Dhaal Atoll to rename the island ‘Havaru Thinadhoo’ at its meeting next week, Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair confirmed today.

Zuhair said that legal advice has been sought following the request and that the cabinet will make a decision at its next meeting on Tuesday, August 3.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Thinadhoo Council Chair Ahmed Naseer said that the council sent a letter requesting the name change to President Mohamed Nasheed because “a lot of citizens asked it of us.”

“For hundreds of years the island was called Havaru Thinadhoo,” he explained. “And when the name was changed by former President Maumoon [Abdul Gayoom] in 1979, no reason was given for that decision and it was not requested by the people of Thinadhoo, either.”

Contrary to popular belief, said Naseer, Thinadhoo did not earn the title ‘Havaru’ for its its part in the short-lived secession of three southern atolls and subsequent depopulation by Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir on February 4, 1962.

The term ‘Havaru’ originally referred to the six divisions or companies of the public of Male’, which functioned as militia or army units. The word has since earned the connotation of ‘mob.’

In the late 16th century, Sultan Mohamed Thakurufaanu sent the six militias or the ‘Havaru’ to recapture Thinadhoo upon learning that the islanders had re-converted to Buddhism.

Following their victory, the island was endowed to the six companies, which continued to exact an annual tax from islanders until the practice was abolished by Ibrahim Nasir when he became Prime Minister.

Thinadhoo MP Mohamed Gasam of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) meanwhile suggested that the “best way to decide the name change” would be through a public referendum.

“Some people in Thinadhoo want the name to be changed but others want it to stay the same,” he said. “There is some disagreement about this. We should find out what the people want.”

Councillor Naseer said that he had “no problem” with a referendum, but suggested that an election would be a costly affair.

“I think that even if there is an election [the name change proposition] is very likely to get passed,” said Naseer, who is also a member of the ruling party.

In the local council elections in February, the MDP made a clean sweep of the seven-seat Thinadhoo council.

Ibrahim Nasir International Airport

Thinadhoo Council Chair Naseer however insisted that the council’s request had “no connection whatsoever” to the announcement last week that the Male’ International Airport would be renamed ‘Ibrahim Nasir International Airport’ on Independence Day (July 26) in honour of the former President.

“We had been thinking about sending the letter [requesting the name change] for some time now, long before that announcement” he said, adding that the timing of the council’s letter was a “coincidence.”

MP Gasam meanwhile suggested that the council might have made the request last week as Independence Day would be an auspicious date for the change.

Naseer stressed that the letter to President Nasheed only sought legal advice as well as his opinion: “We would have no problem if the cabinet decided that changing the name would not be the right thing to do,” he said.

Asked about the renaming of the airport due to take place tomorrow, Naseer speculated that “no one who is from Thinadhoo” would support the change as the former President had ordered the “brutal destruction of the island” in 1962.

Meanwhile as the country prepares to celebrate its 46th Independence Day tomorrow – secured by Nasir on July 26, 1965 – local media reports that the former President’s eldest son, Ahmed Nasir, filed a case at the Supreme Court yesterday, appealing a High Court ruling in 1986 to confiscate the property and estates of his father.

The High Court at the time found that Nasir had misappropriated state funds and decided that his property and estates could be sold by the state to recoup the allegedly stolen money.

After resigning in 1978, Nasir moved to Singapore, where he passed away on November 22, 2008, just weeks after his successor Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was ousted in the country’s first multi-party election.

Nasir’s lawyer, “Gnaviyani” Ali Shareef Ibrahim, told Sun Online yesterday that neither the judicial system under Gayoom nor the prevailing political environment 25 years ago made such an appeal possible.

Under the old constitution, which did not feature separation of powers or independent institutions, the President was both head of state and supreme authority on justice, with the power to overrule verdicts and dismiss judges.

The Supreme Court of the Maldives was established in September 2008 following ratification of the new constitution on August 7, 2008.

Shareef explained that Nasir was sentenced in absentia while angry mobs, including school children, were protesting on the streets.

The Nasir family lawyer also alleged in comments made to newspaper Haveeru today that the new administration of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom began selling Nasir’s property before the High Court verdict on January 30, 1986.

“[Proceeds of the sales] were deposited at Nasir’s SBI [State Bank of India] account, which was frozen by the government,” he said. “When the verdict was delivered, they took all the money out.”

Shareef revealed that the appeal was lodged at the Supreme Court in May as regulations gave the highest court of appeal the discretion to hear such cases in spite of the length of time between the original verdict and the appeal.

The elderly lawyer claimed that the previous administration vilified Nasir by “spreading lies to make him out to be an enemy of the country, a mercenary, a corrupt person.”

“The state media was constantly mocking President Nasir and showing all sorts of cartoons of him,” he said. “[Nasir] did not return at the time because he feared for his life.”


‘Words and weapons’ bill presented to parliament

A bill banning threats, use of sharp objects and weapons was been presented by the government to the parliament yesterday, in a bid to reduce violent crime on the streets of Male’.

If the bill is passed, threatening a person will become a crime and will result in a 2-12 months sentence. If someone uses a sharp object or dangerous weapon in a threatening manner, there would be an additional 1-6 months sentence.

The bill says that using or storing a sharp object or dangerous weapon in public is also a crime, which will receive a 2-12 months sentence. Furthermore, importing butterfly knives and flick knives without the permission from the Home Ministry would also become a crime, and receive a 1-3 month sentence.

Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Mohamed ‘Colonel’ Nasheed introduced the bill to the MPs, which was forwarded to debate through the support of Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Ali Waheed.

Spokesperson for MDP parliamentary group MP Ahmed Shifaz said that the bill was mainly focused on reducing gang fighting to make the society “a peaceful and safe place.”

”Right now police cannot arrest somebody walking around with a knife in their hand,” Shifaz said. ”But after this bill is passed, people will  not be allowed to use sharp objects and weapons in public.”

He said anything that could be used to injure a person would be designated as a weapon, including logs and batons.

‘Threatening a person with weapons or words would also be a crime under the bill,” he said, ”and even if a police officer threatens a person, that officer can be charged.”

He said the bill would help to reduce crime rate in the country.

DRP MP Abdulla Mausoom said it was very difficult to comment on the bill as it was still in the debate stage.

”Everyone wants to stop crime in the country,” Mausoom said. ”The crime rate has risen in the capital Male’ and big islands of the country.”

Mausoom said anybody who used ‘weapons’ should not be arrested, as they were used for many purposes.

”For instance, people living in the islands – in the early morning they are out working with their axes, knives and other sharp objects,” he said.

He said the most effective solution for rising crime was to have community participation.

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said the bill would help to avoid crimes in many ways.

”The bill will provide a wide range of powers to police to remove the offender,” Zuhair said.

Zuhair said everyone with a knife would not be deemed a criminal, but ”all criminals are now armed with a knife.”

He said the bill was rather an effective ban on threatening a person’s well being.


HRCM gathering government institutions and political parties for human rights forum

Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) has called on the president, independent institutions and all the political parties to come together and discuss issues around human rights in the Maldives and express their ideas.

President of HRCM Ahmed Saleem said the commission had sent letters to President Mohamed Nasheed, Speaker of Parliament Abdulla Shahid, Attorney General Husnu Suood and to representatives of all the political parties.

”We want to hear the voice of political parties and government institutions,” he said.

He said the commission intended to draft a report on human rights in the country and visit the atolls after meeting with government institutions and political parties.

”We advise everyone in connection with human rights including the media to cooperate with us,” he said.

Press Secretary of the President Mohamed Zuhair said the president had not decided whether he would attend, but that he would undoubtedly support the assembly.

Secretary General of the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Abdulla Mausoom said the party would decide to what to do after discussing it.

He said he do not believe a survey of human rights was necessary, “as for instance is there any use to a survey to find out whether people like to eat?”

He claimed the government had abused the rights of freedom of opinion by threatening private media.

Recently inducted Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Alhan Fahmy said the party would support the gathering, noting that while human rights in the Maldives was progressing day by day, ” there are things to be corrected.”