State presents witnesses in Sun Shiyam’s alcohol possession trial

The Prosecutor General’s Office has presented witnesses in the alcohol possession trial against tourism tycoon and MP for Meedhoo constituency MP Ahmed ‘Sun Travel’ Shiyam.

Two Customs Services officers who checked Shiyam’s bag in March 2012 at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport testified to finding an alcohol bottle in his luggage at the Criminal Court today, local media has reported.

A Maldives Airports Company Ltd (MACL) staff member who handled the luggage said they were not aware an alcohol bottle was in the bag when they took it for screening.  The staff said the bag was unlocked and it was possible for someone to have put the bottle in the bag.

Two police officers who carried out forensic tests on the bottle testified that the substance in the bottle is alcohol.

Shiyam has denied charges, claiming he is being framed.

The penalty for alcohol possession in the penal code is either a fine of between MVR1,000 to MVR3,000, or imprisonment, banishment or house arrest for up to three years.

Under Article 73 of the constitution, an MP convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to more than one year in prison will lose his or her seat in parliament.

The case has garnered controversy after Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed took over the case from Judge Ahmed Sameer following a complaint by Shiyam in which he said Judge Aziz’s “hand gestures and facial expressions” indicated a personal grudge against him which could lead to an unfair trial.

The MP for Dhaal Meedhoo is the leader of Maldives Development Alliance – which has 7,537 registered members and five MPs – and is founder of the Sun Travel and Tours company.


Sun Shiyam’s bag was searched in absentia, witnesses admit in alcohol trial

Tourism tycoon and MP ‘Sun Travel’ Ahmed Shiyam’s bags were searched in his absence, state prosecutors have told the Criminal Court on Monday (May 26).

Shiyam is being charged with smuggling alcohol and possessing alcohol after a liquor bottle was found in his luggage at the airport in March 2012.

But Shiyam’s lawyer Ali Shah claimed the MP was being framed. Witnesses presented by the state admitted the luggage was with another individual when it was unlocked.

Witnesses also said they did not question Shiyam about the find at the time.

The case has garnered controversy after Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed took over the case from Judge Ahmed Sameer following a complaint by Shiyam in which he said Judge Aziz’s “hand gestures and facial expressions” indicated a personal grudge against him which could lead to an unfair trial.

The penalty for alcohol possession in the penal code is either a fine of between MVR1,000 to MVR3,000 or imprisonment, banishment or house arrest for up to three years.

Under article 73 of the constitution, an MP convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to more than one year in prison will lose his or her seat in parliament.

The MP for Dhaal Meedhoo is the leader of Maldives Development Alliance – which has 7,537 registered members and three MPs – and is founder of the Sun Travel and Tours company.


Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed presides over second hearing in Shiyam trial

Chief Judge Abdula Mohamed has today presided over the hearing of Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) leader MP Ahmed ‘Sun’ Shiyam, after taking over the case last week.

Abdula Mohamed responded to the points taken by MP Shiyam’s attorneys, who said they had no witnesses that they would like to call after the prosecution had produced five witnesses, including the officer who detected the bottle and other customs officials, reported Haveeru.

Abdulla took over Shiyam’s alcohol-smuggling trial after the defendant had requested the change – suggesting that Judge Aziz’s “hand gestures and facial expressions” had indicated a personal grudge against him in the first hearing.

Shiyam was charged with smuggling and possession of alcohol in March 2012 after customs officers at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) discovered a bottle of alcohol in his luggage.

Prior to the recent change, the trial has experienced multiple delays, with today’s hearing only the second to be completed.


Sun Shiyam’s alcohol possession trial delayed again

The second hearing in the alcohol possession and smuggling trial of Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) leader and MP Ahmed ‘Sun’ Shiyam has been cancelled for the third time in two months.

According to the Criminal Court, a scheduled hearing was cancelled today as the court was unable to deliver the summons chit.

Media reports that the presiding judge has been changed have today been denied by the court.

In March 2012, customs officers at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) discovered a bottle of alcohol in the MP’s luggage. After a police investigation, the case was forwarded to the Prosecutor General’s (PG) Office in August 2012 before being returned to police due to incomplete information.

The relative speed at which cases related to opposition MPs have travelled through the justice system prompted the Maldivian Democratic Party to seek a no-confidence motion against then PG Ahmed Muizz.

Muizz’s subsequent resignation last November has indirectly led to the current crisis in the country’s courts.

Shiyam was eventually charged – more than a year later – although a hearing scheduled for November 7 2013 was cancelled after a summons chit was not delivered to Shiyam.

The Criminal Court subsequently ordered police to present the MP in court, after which he appeared for the first hearing on March 13, 2014.

With local media reporting that Shiyam was kept in the guest area of the court – unlike other suspects – Shiyam denied the charges and requested more time to research the case.

A scheduled hearing for April 10 was again cancelled due to Shiyam’s absence from the capital, with the rescheduled hearing also cancelled as the court was unable to deliver the chit.

An unannounced hearing was attempted on March 27 prior to these official hearings, while Judge Ahmed Sameer Abdul Aziz – who is presiding over the case – was on leave. Citing an anonymous source at the court, local media outlet CNM reported that Criminal Court Chief Justice Abdullah Mohamed was behind this attempt.

“[Criminal Court Chief] Justice Abdulla [Mohamed]was to finish the case. In this regard he sent summoning chits to witnesses while they have not even been presented [by the state], and tried to hold a hearing today at 10am,” CNM quoted the official as saying.

The attempt eventually failed after after a number of court officials were absent from work, CNM was told.

While the case was not on the hearing schedule published on their official website, the court’s spokesperson told CNM such arrangements were not unlawful.

Replacing the judge

Meanwhile local media has reported that the court has now replaced Judge Abdul Aziz with Judge Shujau Usman upon Shiyam’s request.

The Criminal Court has denied these reports, saying that today’s hearing had also been scheduled to be conducted by Judge Abdul Aziz.

The media has published contents of a letter attributed to Shiyam which requests the removal Judge Abdul Aziz from the case stating the he has a personal grudge against the Meedhoo MP.

The letter, dated 24 April 2014, and addressed to to Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz is said to states that, during the first hearing, Judge Abdul Aziz displayed hand gestures and facial expressions which suggested the possibility of acting impartially against Shiyam.

It stated that Judge Abdul Aziz was also displeased with the MDA leader following his complaints, and that Shiyam had received information the judge may be considering a hastened and strict verdict against him.

The letter described the case against Shiyam as “a devious plot by some powerful people” and a politically motivated lie invented by Shiyam’s enemies.

If found guilty, Shiyam could lose his seat in the parliament as per Article 73(c)(2) of the constitution which states that members will be disqualified upon receiving a criminal sentence of more than twelve months would.

Import and possession of alcohol without a special permit form the Ministry of Economic Development is is a criminal offence in the Maldives. The penalty for the crime under the Unlawful Imports Act is 1-3 years imprisonment, banishment or a fine between MVR1000 – 5000.


Ongoing strike at Vilu Reef resort sees 18 staff fired

Vilu Reef resort has allegedly terminated 18 members of staff, with some given just one hour to leave, after employees had presented management with a list of grievances.

Speaking with Minivan News, Ahmed Rasheed – a Vilu Reef employee for two years before his dismissal yesterday – described his termination:

“They sent me with 5 police guards into my room. They locked the door and asked me to pack within one hour.”

Vilu Reef is part of the Sun Travel & Tours group – a company owned by the prominent businessman and Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) leader Ahmed ‘Sun’ Shiyam.

After compiling a list of grievances against the resort, Rasheed explained that he had prepared a petition on which he managed to get 153 signatures from fellow staff.

He recalled that the demands were then presented to the hotel management on March 17, who came back to the employees, suggesting “if you don’t want to stay here you can leave.”

After conferring with the staff team, employees then decided to strike, stated Rasheed, with around 50 resort employees congregating at around 11pm with their demands on Sunday (March 23).

The management called police, but assured staff that no would be terminated, said Rasheed. They agreed to carry out amendments to meet the requests as of the April 30, he added, “so the next day we went back to work.”

“I was fired after two days,” continued Rasheed. “They just give me a call and said ‘hey can you come to the office’, then they gave me a letter. They asked me to sign.”

According to Rasheed’s termination contract, the reason Vilu Reef fired him was because his post was no longer available.

The termination letter stated that the employees were being fired due to their posts “being made redundant” and were asked to leave with “immediate effective (sic) of March 25”.

The letter acknowledges that there should be one month’s notice for the termination of staff, and therefore the management “have decided to as an extra measure compensation payment in lieu of three months notice period.”

The next steps, according to Rasheed, are being supported by the Tourism Association of Maldives (TEAM).

“We are not a member of TEAM but we are really thanking them for their help. They are helping us to do something good. At least we have some people who are trying to get our rights back.”

Workers’ right to strike

TEAM Secretary General  Mauroof Zakir told Minivan News that TEAM would assist the staff in taking the case to the Employment Tribunal, though felt there would be “no hope” for a fair case.

“Shiyam is very strong here,” he noted, “one of the partners of the government.”

“Since 2012 the decisions are against international standards and international best practice,” he added. “It’s all corrupt judiciary, and high court decisions against employment cases are one of the key factors.”

According to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act 2013, tourist resorts, ports, and airports fall into a category of places in which protests are prohibited.

The US State Department expressed concern about the change in this law in their recently released 2013 Human Rights Report.

Local NGOs Transparency Maldives and the Maldivian Democracy Network have also expressed their concern that the law has impacted upon freedom of peaceful assembly.

No-one from the management team at Vilu Reef was available for comment when contacted by Minivan News.

Earlier this year the prestigious One & Only Reethi Rah resort saw an estimated 90% of its employees partake in an organised strike against perceived ill treatment and discrimination.

The strike was called following the management’s failure to meet employees to discuss concerns regarding discrimination against local workers, and a team of police were dispatched to the resort.

In a similar case in September 2013, staff at Irufushi Beach and Spa resort reported a “firing spree” affecting staff members professing to support the Maldivian Democratic Party.

The resort, which in May 2013 abruptly terminated its agreement with hotel giant Hilton – leading to the overnight resignation of 30 employees – is also part of the Sun Travel group.

A source working at the hotel at the time of publishing stated, “Shiyam took over this resort in what the staff refers to as another coup d’etat at the resort level. Since then we have been gradually stripped of rights we are legally entitled to as citizens of the Maldives.”


MDA Leader ‘Sun’ Shiyam denies alcohol smuggling charges in court

Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) leader Ahmed ‘Sun’ Shiyam has denied the charges of alcohol possession before the Criminal Court.

The prominent businessman and MP for Dhaalu Meedhoo constituency was allegedly with the illegal bottle of liquor by customs official on his arrival airport on his arrival in Malé in March 2012.

Lawyers from the Prosecutor General’s Office told the court that when customs officers searched his luggage, officers discovered the bottle inside before running tests on its contents. The PG’s Office announced it was pressing charges against Shiyam for possession of alcohol and smuggling alcohol into the country.

Shiyam denied the charges and his lawyer requested that the court give him more time to research the case before the next hearing on April 10.

Newspaper ‘Haveeru’ reported that Shiyam was brought to court by police in compliance with an arrest warrant issued after the MP had failed to comply with the court summons.

According to Haveeru, Shiyam was kept in the guest area of the court – unlike other suspects brought to court – and unlike other MPs under the same circumstances.

Online newspaper Sun Online – run by a company owned by Shiyam – today quoted Shiyam’s legal team saying that it was a set-up to destroy the MP’s reputation.

His legal team told Sun that Shiyam was the owner of many resorts and there was no reason Shiyam should try to bring in an alcohol bottle from abroad. Shiyam was not hiding from the courts and will fully obey all laws, Sun was informed.

The Criminal Court last week ordered the police to arrest and summon both Shiyam and Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) former Special Envoy to President Mohamed Nasheed, Ibrahim Hussein Zaki.

Zaki is facing trial after he was arrested from the island of Hondaidhoo in Haa Dhaalu Atoll while he was allegedly in possession of cannabis and alcohol in November 2012.

The speedy prosecution of MDP members in relation to the Hondaidhoo incident – in comparison to delays in the Shiyam case – was highlighted by Nasheed last October as his party filed a no-confidence motion against then Prosecutor General Ahmed Muiz.

On October 31, 2013, the Criminal Court sentenced MDP MP Hamid Abdul Ghafoor to six months for contempt of court after he refused to comply with court summons – though the charge was later overturned in the High Court.

On February 20, MDP MP Abdulla Jabir was sentenced by the Criminal Court to one year for refusing to provide a urine sample to police to run a drug test.

Both Hamed and Jabir’s prosecution were in relation to the November 2012 Hondaidhoo raid.

Police have informed the court today that they were unable to arrest Zaki as he was abroad.

The penalty for alcohol possession in the penal code is either a fine of between MVR1,000 to MVR3,000 or imprisonment, banishment, or house arrest for up to three years.

Shiyam’s MDA formed an alliance with the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) in August, 2013, to back the eventual winner of the presidential election, Abdulla Yameen.


President Yameen launches “Sun Siyam” brand

President Abdulla Yameen opened the rebranded “Sun Siyam Iru Fushi” resort at a ceremony on Friday.

Resorts operated under the ‘Sun Travel’ company owned by MP Ahmed Siyam Mohamed have been rebranded ‘Sun Siyam Resorts.’

Speaking at the brand launching ceremony, President Yameen urged youth to follow the example of Siyam’s entrepreneurship, adding that success could be reached through perseverance and discipline.

The president also outlined the government’s goals for developing the tourism industry during his five-year term, which included “developing 50 new resort properties, introducing vertical tourism, positioning Maldives as a vacation home, developing live-aboard marina infrastructure, developing medical tourism with world class facilities, and introducing educational tourism,” according to the President’s Office.

President Yameen announced that a number of resorts would float a portion of their shares to the public by the end of the year, urging resort workers to become shareholders.

The Sun Siyam would be floating up to 40 percent of the group’s shares to their employees in the coming years, Yameen announced.

At the ceremony, Siyam – leader of the Maldives Development Alliance party – presented President Yameen and Toursim Minister Ahmed Adeeb with commemorative plaques, which was followed by an entertainment programme headlined by international artist Nicole Scherzinger.


Tourism decline due to negligence in promoting destination: ‘Sun’ Shiyam

The decline in tourism arrivals from the Maldives’ traditional European markets is a result of the state’s failure to adequately promote the destination, resort tycoon and Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) leader MP Ahmed ‘Sun’ Shiyam has declared.

The MDA allied with the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) for the recent election, in which PPM candidate Abdulla Yameen was declared President.

“Tourist arrivals from European markets have gone down more than ever before. Maldivians are not able to enjoy the real benefits, because of negligence in promoting tourism,” Shiyam alleged in local media.

Tourism marketing is overseen by the Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation (MMPRC) and Tourism Ministry, the minister of which, Ahmed Adheeb, was last week reappointed to the same post in Yameen’s government. The MMPRC’s former head, Mohamed Maleeh Jamal, was appointed Minister of Youth and Sports.

Shiyam warned of a deteriorating economic situation that could leave the government no other option than cost cutting.

According to a recent report by the Finance Ministry, tourism growth flat-lined in 2012 as a result of two years of political turmoil.

The tourism industry’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in 2012 declined by 0.1 percent following 15.8 percent growth in 2010 and 9.2 percent in 2011, the Finance Ministry revealed in a “Fiscal and Economic Outlook: 2012 to 2016″ statement included in the 2014 budget (Dhivehi) submitted to parliament.

“The main reason for this was the political turmoil the country faced in February 2012 and the decline in the number of days tourists spent in the country,” the report explained.

Tourism growth is measured in bed nights, as arrival figures – predicted to top one million in 2013 – do not necessarily give a clear picture of the industry’s performance.

“As the most number of tourists to the country now come from China, we note that the low number of nights on average that a Chinese tourist spends in the Maldives has an adverse effect on the tourism sector’s GDP,” noted the Finance Ministry’s report.

The Maldivian economy is largely dependent on tourism, which accounted for 28 percent of GDP on average in the past five years, and generated 38 percent of government revenue in 2012. Indirectly the industry is thought to contribute up to 70 percent of GDP, and 90 percent of all foreign exchange.

Much of that revenue is generated through the tourism GST, introduced during the Nasheed government amid resistance from many of the country’s resort tycoons. It is currently set at 8 percent, however the new government has warned it may increase it to 12 percent in an attempt to match its high levels of expenditure.


Politics in paradise: Irufushi resort staff complain of political “firing spree”

Additional reporting by Neil Merrett

Staff at Irufushi Beach and Spa resort have expressed concern over a “firing spree” affecting staff members professing to support the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

The resort, which in May 2013 abruptly terminated its agreement with hotel giant Hilton leading to the overnight resignation of 30 employees, is owned by Maldivian Development Alliance (MDA) leader Ahmed ‘Sun’ Shiyam. MDA is the coalition partner of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and is backing its candidate Abdulla Yameen in the presidential run-off.

According to staff at the resort, the management has been on a “firing spree” since the conclusion of the first round of elections, while some others have been suspended or warned of dismissal.

Minivan News obtained copies of three letters of termination, one dated September 19 and two dated September 26, instructing staff that their employment was “terminated with immediate effect”, and ordering them to collect their belongings and leave the island the same day. The letters did not give reason for the terminations.

Mohamed Rishwan, one of the first staff members who was fired from Irufushi, spoke to Minivan News about the “unfair circumstances surrounding [his] unexpected dismissal”.

Rishwan, who worked in the resort’s housekeeping department, was dismissed on September 26 and alleged the only response from the Human Resource Department to his request for a reason was “I don’t know. These were orders from the top management. Why do you need to support [MDP presidential candidate] Mohamed Nasheed?”.

“Our work and politics have been absolutely entangled by the current management. Staff at the resort are living in a constant state of fear of losing their jobs, despite performing at their best. The rumour is the HR Department plans to dismiss many others there who support MDP. Pressure increased after Nasheed won the majority of votes even on Irufushi in the first round,” Rishwan said.

According to results from Irufushi’s ballot box in the first round of voting on September 7,  59 staff on the resort voted for the MDP, 38 for the PPM, six for the JP and one for incumbent President Mohamed Waheed.

“When I demanded to meet the HR head after I was suddenly and unexpectedly dismissed, Shiyam’s brother met with us. He said there was no reason except that the resort no longer wanted us there. He then spent the rest of the meeting asking us why we supported Nasheed, promoting Yameen and his policies and trying to dissuade us from supporting MDP,” Rishwan continued.

“I told him I no longer wanted to live in fear, under such extreme political pressure, being discriminated against for political reasons. We were even harassed in the staff quarters by supporters of the opposite political ideology. The staff of Irufushi have been stripped of many constitutional rights and live under the repression of this new politicised management.

The Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM) on Thursday committed its 5000 members to “prolonged” strike action should the election be delayed.

“The management have ordered all staff to register at the resort for voting. They’ve also said at staff briefings that all staff must vote for Yameen, and that no one should dare try implementing the workers’ strike that Nasheed spoke of,” Rishwan alleged.

“One colleague refused to register to vote at the resort, saying he will finish his duty and go to his nearby home island to vote citing that it was his constitutional right to do so. He was immediately fired. Some of my former colleagues are now saying that they will not dare cast a vote at all,” he said.

Another source, currently working at Irufushi, spoke on condition of anonymity of what he described as a repressive atmosphere among resort staff.

“Things are very difficult. I need to hold this job, so don’t name me. Shiyam is firing anyone he even suspects of supporting the MDP. Most of us are under what I would say is psychological trauma right now, afraid to speak our minds as there is so much pressure from above. We can’t all afford to lose our jobs, but is political affiliation any reason to be legally dismissed from a job?”

“MDA is forcing staff to sign up for their party, that’s the only path to job guarantee or promotion these days. They are also hiring groups of youth who live on this island but do nothing besides preparing campaign banners for the MDA coalition. I’ve been working here for many years, but I feel like a stranger here now with so many new, hostile faces. The sudden lack of usual liberties is very disheartening,” he said.

“There’s been at least five dismissals in the last week, and no one knows who is next. You see, this is our livelihood, how we support families. This is why everyone is bowing down to this repression, even if reluctantly, and attempting to hold our jobs.”

“Sun Shiyam has addressed all staff in extremely disrespectful, and even vulgar, terms. Let me quote what he said at a staff briefing: ‘You MDP lot are making ‘haram’ use of my money as your wages. You are not entitled to any of it. I will make sure I push out every single one of you MDP dogs from my resort. Mark my words.’ You see, this is the reason the staff are in fear. We need to let word out and let the world know,” another staff member told Minivan News.

“The management holds nightly staff gatherings where they slander Nasheed and praise Yameen. Staff are made to agree with all they say, or face dismissal within two days. They have said that they want 100 percent votes for Yameen from Irufushi in the second round, and that it is mandatory for all staff members to register to vote on Irufushi itself.”

“In fact, we’ve been told that if Yameen doesn’t win 100 percent, they will see what percentage Nasheed gets, and fire an equal percentage of staff based on who they suspect might have cast those votes. Most of us are now saying we will just cast invalid votes, or just not vote at all,” he said.

“Shiyam took over this resort in what the staff refers to as another coup d’etat at the resort level. Since then we have been gradually stripped of rights we are legally entitled to as citizens of the Maldives.”

Resort response

General Manager of Irufushi Beach and Spa Resort, Abdulla Thamheed, rejected allegations that the resort had fired staff members for politically-motivated reasons.

He said that after Sun Travel and Tours took over the site following the company’s decision to terminate its agreement with Hilton in May, a number of staff members had been fired for “not sharing the resort’s values”.

“These people were not on the same page with the company, so we have gone our separate ways,” he said.

Thamheed said the resort had not been affected by calls for strike action by tourism workers over the indefinite suspension of the run-off election.

He also questioned the motivation of any Maldivian seeking to damage the country’s luxury tourism industry, stating that most staff members had families they needed to support.

“No one is interested in striking [on the resort],” he said.

Before answering questions on the allegations of politically-motivated sackings at the resort, Thamheed requested he be quoted on the record as expressing concerns over “why a white European” was allowed to working at a Maldives-based publication such as Minivan News.

“The fact you are a white European doesn’t mean you can come to a third world country and break into our privacy,” he told Minivan News. “You are a white European and a failure in the UK. I have managed many five star resorts and met journalists from newspapers like the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph,” he said.

Upon confirming the reporter’s nationality as a UK citizen, Thamheed expressed his view that the journalist was a stereotypical reminder of the Maldives’ colonial past.  Asked to clarify his comment, he accepted that the Maldives itself had not been colonised by the UK.

“You see yourself as an imperialistic and colonial person, who believes they have imperial superiority over us. No one will give you a job outside this country,” Thamheed said.

He added that although his comments were “not personal”, but questioned Minivan News’ ethics as a news organisation and said the reporter could not be called a journalist for producing what he believed was “biased, one-sided propaganda”.

Thamheed went on to state that as a white European in the Maldives, the Minivan News reporter would not have sought to contact someone for a story in their own country during evening time.

“I have met many top journalists from newspapers like the Sunday Times and the Telegraph. Do you really think this is how journalists are supposed to behave?” he said.

Thamheed requested that his words be remembered by the journalist and quoted directly in this article.

“I don’t think you will be able to sleep tonight,” he said. “I am very happy I have spoken to you.”

MDA leader, MP and Irufushi owner Ahmed ‘Sun’ Shiyam was not responding to calls at time of press.