Gasim’s Villa denied stay order in court battle

The Villa Group has been denied a stay order on the tourism ministry’s seizure of two lagoons in a court battle that could bankrupt one of the Maldives’ largest companies.

The civil court yesterday rejected a request by Villa, which is owned by opposition Jumhooree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim, for the stay order, paving the way for the tourism ministry to take control of the lagoons.

Villa Group is currently locked in a series of lawsuits against the state over the seizure of several leased properties as well as a notice to pay US$100 million allegedly owed as unpaid rent and fines.

The opposition claims the government is unfairly targeting Gasim’s business interests following the JP’s split from the ruling coalition. The government denies any political motivation behind the moves.

Villa has filed ten cases at the civil court contesting the tourism ministry’s termination of amended lease agreements as well as the US$100million notice.

The company is seeking stay orders halting the enforcement of the notices until the court decides on its legality.

But in yesterday’s ruling over the termination of lease agreements for the Maadhihgaru and Kanuhuraa lagoons in Kaafu atoll, the court ruled that Villa Hotels will not suffer “irrevocable losses” if the stay order is not granted as the state could compensate the company if the case is concluded in its favour.

The tourism ministry had also terminated lease agreements with Villa for three more islands shortly after the JP formed an alliance with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in early February.

Requests for stay orders in the other cases are still pending. Former Prosecutor General Ahmed Muiz is representing Villa in the lawsuits against the tourism ministry and the Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA).

MIRA had initially asked Villa to pay US$100million by late March, but extended the period until mid April.

Gasim has said the government is planning to freeze Villa’s accounts if the company is unable to pay the amount, warning that it would bankrupt the company and leave his 5,000 employees jobless.

In early February, the civil court granted a stay order halting the seizure of the five properties in separate litigation. However, on February 24, the High Court overturned the stay order.

Gasim meanwhile met Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed yesterday following the apex court’s refusal to accept an appeal for the High Court decision.

Gasim told reporters after the meeting that he expressed displeasure with the Supreme Court registrar rejecting the appeal without offering a reason.

The chief justice told him to submit a letter and that matters cannot be settled verbally, Gasim said.

Villa Group is one of the largest companies in the Maldives with the holding company Villa Shipping and Trading Pvt Ltd conglomerate operating businesses in shipping, import and export, retail, tourism, fishing, media, communications, transport, and education.

The three islands and two lagoons at stake in this case were leased as part of a settlement agreement signed with the government in December 2013 after the Supreme Court ordered the state to pay Villa over US$9 million as compensation.

Lagoons are generally leased for purposes of land reclamation for either industrial or tourism purposes.


Maldives entrepreneurs braving “culture war” to pursue guesthouse growth, AFP reports

The full story can be read here on Minivan News’ spin-off travel website Dhonisaurus.

“Most visitors arrive at the country’s airport island, take a speed boat or seaplane to their expensive coral-fringed private resort and spend the next week relaxing in blissful ignorance of the country around them,” writes Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist Adam Plowright.

“It has been this way for decades, the result of a deliberate policy of keeping wealthy vacationers — mostly Westerners and often newlyweds — on uninhabited islands separate from the local Muslim population.”

The potential nonetheless for expanding mid-market tourism in the Maldives through the “niche” guesthouse segment emerged as an early election issue in May after senior opposition and government figures clashed over how best the country’s inhabited islands might profit from visitors.

Plowright himself observed that despite the Maldives’ reputation as one of the world’s most exclusive holiday destinations, the opening of guesthouses across the country over the last five years has appeared to upset some religious conservatives in the country.

Under the country’s laws, traditional holiday staples such as the sale and consumption of alcohol and pork products, and women publicly sunbathing in bikinis are outlawed unless on designated ‘uninhabited’ islands set aside exclusively for resort developments.

Plowright added that with the local Maldivian potentially facing public flogging should they be convicted on charges of ‘fornication’, the religious conservative Adhaalath Party had maintained that tourism be kept separate from the country’s inhabited islands.

“If the hippy-type of travellers come, along will come drugs and narcotics which even now our society is suffering from. Things like nudity are not acceptable in a place where people are living. The people complain that they are praying in the mosque and just outside there are tourists in bikinis,” Adhaalath Party Vice President Mauroof Hussain told the AFP.

“While fundamentalist interpretations of Islam imported from the Persian Gulf and Pakistan are progressively taking root in the Maldives, Hussain’s views lie far outside the mainstream and are ridiculed by many,” the AFP claimed.

The Adhaalath Party remains a key supporter  in the upcoming election of Jumhoree Party (JP) presidential candidate and businessman MP Gasim Ibrahim, who operates a number of exclusive island resorts through his Villa Hotels company.

The presidential candidate’s resorts have thrived on supplying married and unmarried guests alike with holiday staples associated with the Maldives; including sun bathing, alcoholic beverages and diving expeditions.

Yet despite the prevalance of exclusive island resorts to tourism growth in the Maldives, efforts over the last half decade to expand guesthouses has led to a “torrent” of entrepreneurs like 25-year-old Ibrahim Mohamed opening tourist properties in an attempt to bring more US dollars directly into the local economy, according to Plowright.

Read more.


Gasim calls for “jihad” against “Nasheed’s antics”: local media

Leader of the government-aligned Jumhoree Party (JP), resort tycoon MP Gasim Ibrahim, has accusing former President Mohamed Nasheed of leading a “coup” against the Maldivian state, and called for a “jihad” to protect Maldivian society from “Nasheed’s antics”, local media has reported.

Speaking at the JP’s fourth anniversary ceremony yesterday, local newspaper Haveeru reported Gasim as saying the nation had fallen “victim” to Nasheed and his supporters, whom he accused of conducting “terrorist acts”.

“The time has come to undertake a Jihad in the name of Allah to protect our religion, culture and nation. Such a sacrifice must be made to restore peace and stability in the nation,” Gasim was quoted as saying.

MDP Spokesperson, MP Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, claimed Gasim’s calls for “jihad” were of “very serious” concern to the nation.

Gasim’s statement highlighted the “growing jihadist spirit” among senior government politicians linked to former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whom he accused of promoting “extremist hate speech” against their political opposition.

“What we are seeing are some of Gayoom’s generals trying to stoke a jihadist sense of nationalism,” Ghafoor claimed. “This is a product of Gayoom’s rule.”

Gasim was not responding to calls at time of press.

JP Spokesperson Moosa Ramiz meanwhile said he had been asked to forward questions from media to the party’s president, Dr Ibrahim Didi. Dr Didi was not answering calls at time of press.

“Jihadist rhetoric”

Ghafoor contended that politically-motivated calls for “jihad”  had to be taken seriously, given that Gasim was not only a key financier of the December 23 coalition that criticised the Nasheed administration for “un-Islamic” policies such as diplomatic relations with Israel, but also the Vice Chairman of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI).

“Gasim is the main financier of the [religiously conservative] Adhaalath Party that came into the MDP’s coalition government [elected in 2008] through him,“ Ghafoor claimed. “We cannot take such comments from him with a grain of salt, given that he was one of the chief thugs of Gayoom’s regime.”

As well as leading the Jumhoree Party, Gasim is both a member of parliament and its representative on the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) – the judicial watchdog recently accused by the UN Human Rights Committee of being “seriously compromised”.

During the Maldives recent defence of its human rights record in Geneva, a panel member also raised the “troubling role of the judiciary at the centre of many of these [recent] developments.”

“The judiciary – which is admittedly in serious need of training and qualifications – is yet seemingly playing a role leading to the falling of governments,” he observed.

Gasim was also accused by the MDP of supporting the Adhaalath Party’s February 2010 protests against new regulations permitting the sale of alcohol and pork to foreign nationals at licensed hotels of more than 100 beds, on islands designated as ‘inhabited’ in the Maldives.

According to customs records for 2011, Gasim’s Villa Hotels chain – including the Royal, Paradise, Sun, and Holiday Island resorts, in 2011 imported approximately 121,234.51 litres of beer, 2048 litres of whiskey, 3684 litres of vodka and 219.96 kilograms of pork sausages, among other commodities restricted to islands classified as ‘uninhabited’ in the Maldives.

Political use of Islam

Ghafoor also raised concerns about rhetoric of present Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel, whose Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) this year published a pamphlet whilst in opposition entitled “President Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy the Islamic faith of Maldivians.”

Ghafoor alleged that allegations within the document – denied vehemently by Nasheed, and which leading to the controversial arrest of two senior DQP members including Dr Jameel – amounted to a work of extremist “hate speech”. The repeated dismissal of Dr Jameel’s case by Chief Judge of the Criminal Court, Abdulla Mohamed, and the subsequently arrest and on the judge by Nasheed’s government on charges including political collusion, led to the downfall of the Nasheed administration in a police and military mutiny on February 7.

Ghafoor rejected the JP’s allegations that the MDP’s ongoing protests in the capital during the last few weeks – which have escalated at points into violent confrontations with police – were perceived as “acts of terrorism” by the public.

“This is something [our political opponents] have always thrown at us, to brand the MDP and its supporters as terrorists,” he said. “Though they brand us as un-Islamic, we have won election despite these sort of allegations,” he said. “I would also say that Nasheed has received numerous international awards, including the James Lawson Award for Achievement in the Practice of Nonviolent Action. We are an exemplary case of providing a peaceful political transition despite the country’s coup-ridden past. “


Tourism Ministry may revise spa ban

The government is looking to revise the circular issued late last week requesting that resorts, hotels and guesthouses close down their spas over public allegations that they double as brothels.

“As specifying a certain distance from Male’ would not be a wise decision [in closing down spas] and that other resorts, which also cater for locals, are located close to inhabited islands, the government has decided to close down the spas in all the resorts on a fair basis and by giving a higher priority to the allegations made,” the circular read.

The decision to reconsider the circular was made after several resort owners and the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) expressed “serious concern”.

A statement signed by MATI Secretary General ‘Sim’ Ibrahim Mohamed released last week expressed concern with financial losses as a result of the decision as well as effects on holiday-makers currently in the Maldives.

MATI urged the government and opposition parties to “find a peaceful solution” to the dispute.

“The tourism industry wishes for all actors in the political sphere to prioritise the domestic economy, development and security over differences and disagreements among political parties and not involve the economy’s main industries in these disputes,” reads MATI’s appeal.

MATI’s Chairperson M U Manik and Vice Chair ‘Champa’ Hassan Afeef have made statements in the media urging the government to reverse its decision to shut down resort spas after considering the consequences for the economy.

Meanwhile the government has also announced that it is considering banning pork and alcohol across the country, in response to the large number of Maldivians who protested against the government’s current purported “anti-Islamic” policies.

Tourism Minister Dr Mariyam Zulfa told Haveeru yesterday that the circular was issued in response to demands made by the coalition of religious NGOs and opposition parties during the protest to defend Islam on December 23. These demands included the closure of places which support prostitution, namely spas and massage parlors.

Zulfa noted that a policy shift towards strict Islam would have a profound economic impact on the Maldives.

“We can only sustain our economy by following the moderate form [of Islam] which has been in the Maldives until now,” she told Haveeru. “We [ministers] are labelled anti-Islamic because we support the tolerant form [of Islam]. But that label is a disgrace to our parents as well.”

According to Zulfa, several resorts had raised concern over the circular, and while they “are aware of the reasons that led us to take the decision,” the ministry is investigating a compromise.

The Minister was unavailable for comment at time of press.

Minivan News understands that several tour operators have also been calling resorts to inquire if indeed their spas and massage services have been closed down. Hulhule Island Hotel, near Male’, has closed its spa indefinitely.

Maldives Association of Travel and Tour Operators (MATATO) earlier issued a statement condemning the government’s decision to close five Villa Hotels’ resort spas over allegations of prostitution. MATATO noted that local and foreign resorts, tour operators and travel associations had expressed concern over the decision and that the damage to the industry would be grievous.

“The spa and wellness concept is very popular among tourists,” read the statement. “We urge the government to keep politics away from Tourism and also advise various
Tourism stakeholders as well to do same, as majority of Maldivians depends on Tourism for their livelihood and is something to be dealt with extreme caution and care.”

Today, MATATO did not respond to phone calls.

Speaking at a press conference held the day before the circular was issued, President’s Office Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair justified the strong measure by saying that given the difficulty of distinguishing spas which endorse prostitution from those which do not, and that many high-profile Maldivians visit resort spas, it was important that strict measures be taken to protect those Maldivians’ good names.

Meanwhile, members of the coalition which made the demands have accused the government of “making a mockery of the demands” and “making excuses.”

Alleging that the government is targeting protesters, coalition spokesperson Abdullah Mohamed announced a sixth demand–that the government “stop causing harm to anyone who participates in the religious movement”.

The coalition has given the government until January 5 to fulfill the demands made on December 23, and has warned of further mass protests or direct action in the event that the deadline is not met.


Gasim’s Royal Island Resort sues government

Villa Hotels’ Royal Island Resort and Spa, owned by Jumhoory Party (JP) Leader and MP ‘Burma’ Gasim Ibrahim has sued the government and requested the Civil Court to cancel an order by the Tourism Ministry to close the resort’s Spa over allegations of prostitution operations.

Today the Civil Court issued a warrant to cancel the Tourism Ministry’s order and permit spa operations until the suit against the government is concluded.

Speaking for the government at this morning’s hearing, Attorney General Office’s lawyer Maryam Shunana told the Judge that issuing the warrant was equivalent to closing the entire suit, Haveeru reports.

Former Attorney General Azima Shukoor spoke on behalf of the resort.

Shukoor argued that according to the agreement made between the resort and the government, the resort has 30 days to correct any issue found by the government. If the resort fails to correct the issue within that time frame, the government may fine the resort US$10,000 (Rf154,200), reports Haveeru.

Shukoor claimed that the government’s order was given prior to any investigation and was based on allegations alone. She requested that the ministry’s order be cancelled.

She further requested for the warrant to keep the Spa open until the suit reaches a verdict, adding that if the warrant was not issued the resort risked a great loss.

Deputy Solicitor General Ahmed Usham asked whether the Spa was still open–Shukoor replied that it was functioning. Usham responded that losses to the resort should not be raised in court if the Spa was not closed according to the Ministry’s order.

Yesterday, Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said that the government has decided to shut down all the massage parlors in the Maldives and is considering banning the trade of alcohol and pork throughout the Maldives in response to demands made by protestors on December 23.

Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) Spokesperson and MP Ahmed Mahlouf called on the coalition of religious NGOs and opposition parties to take actions against the government’s decision to disrupt Gasim’s business operations.

He warned that the government will continue to disrupt other businesses run by opposition supporters.

Gasim has filed cases regarding the other four Villa resorts which were requested to close their spa operations. However, no hearings have yet been conducted.

Press Secretary Zuhair yesterday informed Minivan News that Gasim was pretending to be a victim only for political gain, and that the government’s decision was not intended to harm any individual.

He also said that spas Gasim’s resort were not the only ones asked to close operations, but that some spas and massage parlors in Male’ have also been asked to shut down business on similar charges.