Government misled by NDMC’s management of Moreway money

Senior members of Moreway Construction Company and the National Disaster Management Center (NDMC) have been implicated by employees of NDMC and the French Red Cross (FRC) for their alleged corrupt involvement in a 2005 Laamu Gan tsunami housing project.

“Moreway is a scapegoat for forgeries and fabrications committed by the Arif brothers Ahmed and Abdullah, and Mohamed ‘Dhigali’ Waheed,” alleged one member of the business community familiar with the individuals, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Dhigali is a former shareholder and current executive manager of Moreway Construction. Ahmed Arif owns Apollo Holdings Company, which has been linked to Moreway, while Abdullah Arif, formerly director of Moreway Arun Excello, today holds shares in Lotus Company.

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) recently entered NDMC with police forensics experts to review files relating to a Rf18 million (US$1.16 million) payment issued to Moreway by the government in May. The ACC stopped a second payment of Rf15 million (US$973,000) in August on suspicion of corruption.

In 2005, the FRC tendered a US$7 million post-tsunami housing project for Laamu Gan, accepting bids from several companies, including Moreway, in a joint venture with Indian company Arun Excello and local company Aima. Although the project initially proposed 460 houses, complaints of insufficient conditions and finances prompted the FRC to reduce that number to 240.

NDMC Senior Project Manager Mohamed Waheed said Moreway’s complaints of insufficient financing and obstacles to construction prevented the company from fulfilling its contract, although at the time, claimed Waheed, imported materials were duty-free. A former employee of the French Red Cross, Adam, added that Red Cross site inspections and budget plans were nearly fool-proof. But “they were always demanding money from FRC, they had all kinds of excuses,” said Waheed.

Meanwhile, Arun Excello had abandoned the project mid-way due to frustrations with Moreway, incurring a loss of US$300,000.

Representatives at Arun Excello had not responded to inquiries at time of press.

After building 80 houses, Moreway’s contract was terminated by the FRC and the project handed over to Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) under the government’s remit.

Moreway was subsequently sued by NDMC on behalf of the Maldivian government for losses incurred by the unfinished project. In November 2007, the Civil Court delivered a verdict requiring Moreway to pay US$2.3 million to the government and granting NDMC the right to sell Moreway property at their construction site if the money was not paid within one month.

Sources say the money, due four years ago, has not yet been paid.

“Misleading” letters

Although payments were released to Moreway this year by the Finance Ministry, Waheed claimed that the government has been misinformed.

On April 19, 2011, Deputy Minister of Housing and Environment Ahmed Zaki sent a letter to Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz stating that a sixth invoice submitted by Moreway in March 2007 had yet to be paid, and requested that the ministry release the funds.

In response, Inaz said budget constraints prevented the money being allocated to NDMC, “so, money is to be paid from the NDMC budget.”

Further letters obtained by Waheed illustrate government confusion around the issue. In what Waheed called “misleading letters” between the Finance Ministry and NDMC, NDMC personnel requested the government to pay expired contractor invoices for a project which it had not tendered. At Zaki’s suggestion, the Finance Ministry reallocated money for current housing projects in Dhuvaafaru and Vilufushi to facilitate these payments, which were made using the current dollar-rufiyaa exchange rate.

Although the first payment voucher, processed in May, required Mohamed Waheed’s authorisation, his name had been crossed out and replaced by Deputy Minister Adam Saaed’s, who authorised the voucher along with Zaki.

Asked why this had been done, Waheed speculated that “they thought I wouldn’t sign it, and since Saeed is a friend of Zaki’s they had him sign it. I don’t think he even knew about it, maybe he signed it without thinking much.”

Meanwhile, documents used to obtain these payments are in dubious standing. Waheed points out that only copies were submitted to the Finance Ministry. “Who will accept invoice copies these days? Not even a small child!”

FRC officials also pointed out that the invoices had long been considered invalid.

Emails exchanged between Waheed, FRC senior project manager Brett Campbell and FRC construction coordinator Xavier Chanraud confirmed that all legitimate invoices from Moreway had been paid in full by the time FRC closed its housing projects and left the Maldives.

Chanraud recently stated that, “The FRC has closed all of its housing projects in the Maldives years ago and has already paid 100 percent of its contracts value through NDMC, which includes all defect liability retentions to the contractors. I do not think those invoices are still eligible, especially if rejected four years ago by the NDMC for technical reasons.”

Campbell added that the Civil Court’s verdict against Moreway indicated that “not further payments were due to Moreway.”

In reference to requests for additional payments for access road construction, Campbell said those claims were “discussed at length” and “deemed to be a contractor’s cost.”

Then NDMC Chief Coordinator Abdulla Shahid allegedly rejected the invoices at the time on similar grounds.

“It is questionable how these invoices made headway into NDMC budget section [in 2011],” Waheed wrote in a statement. “These are not outstanding payments to Moreway as one would think and FRC does not recognise these invoices as pending.”

When the invoice for a second payment was authorised by Zaki and NDMC chief coordinator Sheikh Ilyas Hussain and submitted to the Finance Ministry, Inaz questioned its validity against Moreway’s pending debt to the government.

Zaki then took the invoice with comments from NDMC Finance Director Mohamed Shiyam’s desk and passed a new copy to someone else for processing, Waheed alleged. Copies of both invoices with clear discrepancies were shown to Minivan News in private interviews.

The Maldives’ current Red Cross affiliate office, the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC), was unable to comment on the case.

A blind spot

Sources at NDMC and formerly the FRC agreed the previous regime’s corrupt reputation has left the current government with a blind spot.

“At the time, the government was too corrupt to get money for projects,” said Waheed. “So the FRC was funding the project, but after Moreway could not complete the project FRC left and the government stepped in.”

Government bias may have pervaded the project from the start, however. Moreway’s original bid was rejected over a fake bank guarantee, Waheed pointed out, and the company had to go to court to clear its name before re-submitting its bid.

“This is how things were done then, I don’t know why Moreway was selected but that was Gayoom’s regime,” he said.

Internal complications at the Red Cross were also rumored, although a source familiar with the operation could not confirm the reports.

For Adam, the central issue in the Moreway case is ignorance. “GoM does not understand the discrepancies in payments and procedures, and has not been properly informed of the project, so it is being charged for variations that were not approved by FRC,” he said.

According to Adam, the “local procedure” leaves project tendering and awarding to the Ministry and does not include consultants. It is “the only procedure Maldivians know,” and supports a “culture of embezzling state funds” whereby invoices are frequently submitted, rarely checked, and often paid.

FRC’s procedure is more meticulous and independent, Adam explained. Consultants are included in the bid review process, and officials at local and international FRC offices review projects alongside NDMC officials and consultants.

Had the government been more aware of FRC’s procedures, Adam said it would have noticed that the recently-paid invoice had not been signed by a consultant or passed through the review process at FRC.

The trickle-down effect

Distribution of the Rf18 million (US$110,000) is unclear. One source said it was obvious to anyone familiar with the business community that Dhigali “has profited personally, that he is a crooked businessman is known across the whole Maldives.”

A source familiar with the business community implicated Dhigali in a check fraud case involving companies Apollo and Lotus. The Arif brothers are currently shareholders in Lotus, and were allegedly issued a bad check by Apollo, in which Dhigali is a shareholder.

Other sources believe that anyone involved in processing the payments has also received a share.

The Arif brothers, said to have split associations with Dhigali earlier this year, were reportedly unaware that the payments were made. Ahmed Arif avoided scheduled interviews with Minivan News, and Dhigali did not respond to phone calls.

To date, Moreway’s debt of US$2.3 million has not been paid.

Breaking the Silence

“This is a big fraud and corruption case involving senior members at the government and at NDMC,” said Waheed, who said he suspects political tensions could make the ACC’s investigation difficult. “I’ve told Ilyas and Zaki not to do this. But Ilyas said he is helpless because he is not part of the ruling party. Zaki is MDP, though, and I think the two don’t want to have a conflict.”

While Waheed believes the ACC “is now more professional than before, and we should attach some faith to their investigation,” he chose not to report his findings to the commission.

Instead, he wrote to the President. “Because this involves so many government members I thought it was best to go to the government first, before reporting anything to an outside body. But when I spoke with them they were nervous, they didn’t want this thing to be talked about.”

Minister Inaz had not responded to phone calls at time of press, and Ilyas refused to speak to Minivan News. Deputy Minister Zaki denied all allegations.

ACC’s investigation of NDMC is currently underway.

Correciton: Previously, this article stated “Zaki then took the invoice with comments from Inaz’s desk and passed a new copy to someone else for processing.”

It should have read, “Zaki then took the invoice with comments from NDMC Finance Director Mohamed Shiyam’s desk and passed a new copy to someone else for processing.”

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Special Envoy leaves for China

The President’s Special Envoy Ibrahim Hussain Zaki has left for China in the wake of several travel warnings in the region that may be impacting Chinese arrivals to the Maldives.

The President’s Office said the visit was at the invitation of the Chinese government to explore further avenues for cooperation between the Maldives and China.

Zaki will meet Vice Minister of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Ai Ping and Deputy Governor of Export Import Bank of China Su Hong. He will also visit Tianjin City and Chengdu of Sichuan Province.

He will be accompanied by Parliamentary Group Leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party Moosa Manik, Minister of State for Economic Development Ahmed Mujthaba, Undersecretary at the President’s Office Eman Hussain and Major Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives National Defence Force.

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MDP announces preliminary election results

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has announced the preliminary results of its elections held to appoint the President, Deputy President and other special posts of the party, after vote counting was formally completed.

Former Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi successfully challenged acting President of the party Ibrahim Hussein Zaki and won the top post of the party, with 10600 votes against Zaki’s 9519 votes.

Current Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam, former Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Alhan Fahmy and Hussein Adam ran for the Vice President’s post.

Alhan won the post by 12225 votes while Environment Minister Aslam won 7230 votes and Adam 158 votes. Both Zaki and Aslam have conceded victory to Didi and Alhan.

Shiyama Adam was elected as the leader of Women’s Wing and Khadheeja Abubakur ‘Aniyath’ was elected as the deputy leader of the Woman’s Wing.

Five members for the MDP Religious Council were also appointed in the election: Mohamed Farooq, Ibrahim Shafeeu, Ahmed Zanin Adam, Ahmed Zaki and Hussein Ibrahim. The former leader of the Religious Council resigned after claiming that he was unhappy with the party’s religious policies.

Nine members for the Appeals Committee were also appointed:  Mohamed Mahir Easa, Hassan Ahmed, Ibrahim Rasheed, Ahmed Siraj, Abdul Hameed Abdul Kareem, Mohamed Falah, Imtiyaz Fahmy, Ahmed Rasheed and Nazil Afeef.

Former Minivan News journalist Aiminath Shauna, now working in the President’s Office, was elected as the head of Youth Wing and Hamza Hassan was elected as the deputy head. Shauna won the post challenging Lufshan Shakeeb ‘Looppe’, a well-known local actor.

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Alhan wins MDP Vice Presidency while Dr Ibrahim Didi in line for top post

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has announced the preliminary results of the party’s elections for its President and Vice President.

The results currently show that former Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi has won the presidency of the party with 6909 votes, in close competition with the President’s Special Envoy Ibrahim Zak (6554 votes).

Meanwhile former Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party MP Alhan Fahmy has beaten Hussein Adam and Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam for the MDP Vice-Presidency with 7709 votes. Aslam received 5421 votes while Adam received 71 votes.

Fahmy changed sides to the ruling party in early 2010 after he was brought before the DRP’s disciplinary committee for voting against its party line on a motion to dismiss then-Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed for opening relations with Israel.

Housing Minister Aslam has congratulated Alhan for his victory, following the release of the preliminary results. 121 ballot boxes of 218 have been counted so far, with official results to be announced in three days.

Aslam has also congratulated MDP Chairperson Mariya Ahmed Didi on running a successful election.

Alhan did not respond to Minivan News at time of press.

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Zaki resigns from MDP Disciplinary Committee

Current President of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Ibrahim Hussein Zaki, who is also the chair of the party’s Disciplinary Commitee, has resgined following the upcoming elections to appoint members to the party including the party’s president and vice president.

MDP’s official website said that Zaki had sent a letter to the Chairperson of MDP, Mariya Ahmed Didi, saying that his resignation was to ensure the MDP elections were conducted “free and fair.”

In the letter Zaki requested Mariya appoint Home Minister Hassan Afeef as the chair of the committee to deal with complaints concerning the elections until the elections were over.

Afeef is currently a member of MDP’s Disciplinary committee.

Zaki is running for the presidency of the party during the elections, challenging former Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi who is also running for the same post.

Recently a voice clip of a conversation between Zaki and a person named Anandhu, purportedly in the UK, was leaked to the local media, concerning negotiations for the delivery of T-Shirts for the MDP ahead of the Presidential election.

The General Elections Act article number 70 states that “products or money” given by foreigners shall not be used by a Presidential Candidate or any person on behalf of a Presidential Candidate, and article 70[a] states that ”Products or money given by foreigners, foreign parties or foreign administrations shall not be used.”

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Voice clip of MDP T-shirt negotiations leaked to local media

A voice clip of a conversation has between Special Envoy to the President Ibrahim Zaki and a person named Anandhu, purportedly in the UK, has been leaked to the local media, concerning negotiations for the delivery of T-Shirts for the Maldivian Democratic Party ahead of the Presidential election.

In the voice clip that first appeared on the website of local radio station SunFM, Zaki and Anandhu speak about payment for the T-shirts ahead of the 2008 presidential elections.

The General Elections Act article number 70 states that “products or money” given by foreigners shall not be used by a Presidential Candidate or any person on behalf of a Presidential Candidate, and article 70[a] states that ”Products or money given by foreigners, foreign parties or foreign administrations shall not be used.”

Zaki told Minivan News that he had provided ”many T-shirts” to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

”No foreign party has directly contributed the MDP, it all came to me and from the things I received I gave things that I felt like giving to MDP,” he said. ”The General Election Act prohibits political parties accepting offers from foreign parties.”

Elections Commissioner Fuad Thaufeeq did not respond to Minivan News at time of press, while Vice Commissioner’s phone was switched off.

Director General of the Elections Commission Mohamed Tholal said he was out of the country and was unable to comment.

The leaked conversation:

Anandhu: Yes, Zaki. On the 1st I will make the transfer. Now, I understand from you, from the email I got also, that I got to do it directly to Elements (?) Garment.

Zaki: Yes, because that makes things very easy for us. That means by wire transfer.

A: Ok, no problem. The rest, I mean you can count me. On the 1st it will be done by wire transfer, ok? And I will then send you an email on the 1st itself to say it’s done and chase it up with Elements Garments to make sure everything goes according to plan. But if I do it on the 1st, say we receive the funds on the 2nd, I mean, do you know the company very well? Does Mausoom know the company very well?

Z: Mausoom knows very well.

A: OK, tell Mausoom to tell then that the funds are coming. Prepare everything and as soon as they receive the funds they can just send it. Because what my fear is that by the time it comes to Male’ – I don’t know how long it will take.

Z: I think it will not take more than about five, six days.

A: Five, six days, ok. As of today, when do you envisage the date of the election will be? It will be around the 11th of September?

Z: Well, you know, the original contemplation of the government was to have the first round on the 20th of September and to have the second round on the 4th of October.

A: Then we have enough time. Because what my worry was, I didn’t want the t-shirts to get to you too late.

Z: Yeah, and in the meantime, an EU delegation came here a couple of days ago.

A: Yes, yes.

Z: And they met us and they said they’ve been talking to Gayoom also and talking to us. And they said their idea is that the 1st of September to the 30th is the month of Ramazan, the fasting month. So their suggestion is why don’t we have the first round on the 4th of October and the second round after two weeks.

A: It makes sense. I don’t know how you feel, but it makes sense. It gives you a bit more time to prepare.

Z: No, our reply was very simple. We cannot agree that the current regime can be extended more than the 11th of November.

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Maafushi jail “in chaos”, claim families of inmates

The country’s main prison in Kaafu Atoll Maafushi is “in chaos”, families of inmates have claimed, with neither the inmates nor jail officers reportedly in charge.

A person familiar with Maafushi jail told Minivan News that the situation was deteriorating daily due to the unfulfilled pledges the government made to inmates.

The source said fights between inmates and jail officers was a daily occurrence.

“It has become the normal situation inside the cells and someone will get hurt. It won’t be a good day without it,” he said.

“Inmates in the cells are demanding fulfillment of the pledges President Mohamed Nasheed made and the jail officers claim they do not have the budget or power they demand.”

Moreover, he said,  inmates were claiming that their parents and family had voted for  President Nasheed because of the pledges he made during the presidential elections.

”They claim that half of Nasheed’s votes came from inmates’ families, who voted for the pledge that they will give parole and clemency to inmates,” he said.

Shortly after the new government came to power, Special Envoy to the President Ibrahim Hussein Zaki visited the jail.

”He came and told all the inmates to think that they all were free now,” he said. ”He said that within weeks everyone will be free.”

He added that inmates were very happy about the news but “after days there was no sign of them and inmates became disheartened.”

In protest, inmates staged a hunger strike in December 2008.

”The State Minister [for Home Affairs, Ahmed Shafeeq] visited the inmates, brought a document signed by the president and told everyone to calm down,” he said. “Then again our families, kids and spouses were happy with the news.”

In October, rioting inmates set Maafushi jail on fire, resulting in violent clashes between inmates and prison guards.

”All the inmates were divided into the damaged cells without even cleaning the place,” he said.

He added that the jail officers continually insist that they did not have sufficient funds.

Inmates did not have pillows, mats, toothpaste, washing powder, enough plates for everyone, enough space for 80 men in a cell and no medication, he said.

”There are no chairs to sit, if the inmates built a chair on their own, MNDF, ESG Force and police will come and give punishments,” he claimed.

Moreover, water given to inmates was not filtered and has led to medical issues.

”But there are not even first aid services there,” he said.

Units with a maximum capacity of 35 was housing between 80 to 90 inmates, he continued.

Further, inmates faced difficulties meeting their parents.

”Former government sent inmates home for three days a month and one month a year,” he said.

He said that sometimes the media said that there were sports and other events conducted for the inmates ”which is not literally how it happens,”

”Only 20 inmates they participate in these events, who are friends and has family relationship with the jail officers,” he claimed.

He said that inmates were counting their days wishing for a day when the president would fulfill his pledges he made to the inmates.

“Day by day Maafushi jail’s condition is going down and inmates have to suffer. Those who sleep on the soft beds, eats on the bigger plates, lives in the bigger houses do not feel what the inmates feel,” he complained.

Response

Director General of Department of Penitentiary and Rehabilitation (DPRS), Ahmed Rasheed, said he had received information about the scuffles after the latest incident last month.

Rasheed said that inmates were provided with mattresses and pillows but they damaged them “when they get angry”.

”To damage something does not take too much time, but to get money to replace it takes a lot of time,” Rasheed explained.

He said the jail was reconstructed after the inmates set the place on fire, but admitted that it was not like as it was before as ”it took several years to built the place like that.”

He said the department was providing all basic necessities and amenities to inmates.

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Face of the Commissions: Ahmed Saleem, HRCM

Minivan News presents the first in a series of in-depth interviews with the heads of the independent commissions in the Maldives.

The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) would seem a vital institution to a government that was elected on a platform of human rights and accountability. Founded by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 2003 it came to the fore following the death in custody of Evan Naseem.

More recently, HRCM has come under heavy criticism from parts of government for its unwillingness to investigate human rights abuses committed prior to 2000. President of HRCM Ahmed Saleem defends the commission, claiming it is misunderstood.

JJ Robinson: What do you see as the role of HRCM?

Ahmed Saleem: HRCM’s major role since 2003 has been teaching the population what human rights and democracy are all about. It’s extremely difficult – you know the pressure we have been under. We are a non-political body – we don’t take sides, and there is always friction with the government in power. That’s very natural. But while I don’t mind the opposition or members of parliament criticising HRCM, it becomes a problem when the sitting government criticises and slanders independent commissions. Independent commissions must be respected, because without these independent commissions, democracy cannot work. Our job is an extremely difficult one to do without taking sides, and I think we are doing our best.

JJ Robinson: What would be some specific incidents of criticism you consider to have been the most damaging?

Ahmed Saleem: It is not even in the interest of the government [to slander us]. HRCM doesn’t go on TV shows, and we don’t retaliate even if somebody attacks us – you’ve never seen us retaliate, because we want to respect even those who criticise us. When people like the press advisor to the president criticises the commission, that means the government doesn’t respect the commission and that’s a problem because this government came to being on platform human rights and democracy – the government can’t afford to criticise the commissions, least of all the human rights commission. There are times we criticise the government but that’s because we are obliged to do so by law.

The government should respect our criticism, find out what’s wrong and talk to us. We cannot demonstrate our independence if the government gives the impression it is trying to use HRCM to achieve its own objectives, like investigating abuses [under the former government]. For that we have suggested a way: a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

JJ Robinson: Groups such as the Torture Victims Association (TVA) and the Maldivian National Congress (MNC) have attacked the former president for human rights abuses committed during his administration. Do you think this is a productive way forward?

HRCM has been criticised for not investigating past abuses
HRCM has been criticised for not investigating past abuses

Ahmed Saleem: [TVA founders] Moosa Ali Manik is my brother in law and and Ahmed Naseem is a friend of mine, so I know very closely exactly what happened. These are people who have suffered grievously, and I can’t blame them. I am not at liberty to criticise anybody. It it is the system – the system is wrong.

We must look into these abuses, we must investigate and find out who is responsible and who is not responsible. They have genuine grievances and I think it would be wrong for anybody to say nothing happened during the last 30 years. Abuses have taken place, and we must find out who did it, why it happened, and also find out how this can be prevented in the future. That is why we have suggested a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

JJ: Do you think the TVA was attempting undermine HRCM through its promises to bring in international lawyers to document and review human rights abuses?

Ahmed Saleem: We definitely support them doing that, but I don’t think it’s so easy. It doesn’t happen that way. They are saying they will take statements and submit them to international courts – it’s not that easy; there are procedures and ways of doing these things.

If they can do it we would welcome it, but I have my doubts as to how successful they will be without the support of the opposition. That why I always talk about a national effort – even if this TVA claim they are not political, the people involved in it make it extremely political.

There are people like my brother-and-law who are not political, but I know for sure what he went through. He was hurt really badly, and until recently he did not want to even talk about it. Abuses have taken place in the past, but only they know what they went through – we will never understand it. As a human rights commission we will support any NGO working to promote the protection of human rights as long as there are no politics.

JJ: A lot of people currently in power have gone through some terrible things. Do you think that at any stage those experiences can compromise some body’s ability to work effectively in a government with an opposition?

Ahmed Saleem: Yes, I think so. And I think it is worth making an effort. After all we are one people, we are all Muslims here and almost everyone is related, it’s like one big family. The Maldives is just not like any other country that has many cultures and communities – everything here is homogeneous.

That’s why I’m saying we must put the country first, otherwise we may create problems that affect the country and our very existence. But if they feel like [investigating the past] we should do it in the right way. We will play a major role if this Truth and Reconciliation Commission happens, but it will have to be initiated by the government.

JJ Robinson: You yourself were appointed by the former government, and as a result some of these groups have attacked your willingness to investigate past abuses. Has this position you’re in made your work more challenging?

Ahmed Saleem: Yes it has. But we are going to stick to our policy. If you have seen our law, we can’t investigate any issue before 2000.

For instance there is this case some MDP people are trying to pursue through us which took place in 1994. This particular issue has been up taken by my wife’s own family, the person in question is my wife’s brother-in-law, but it happened in 1994. It was very cruel the way he was handled, and we talking about an 80 year-old man. Putting him in jail and harassing him was completely wrong. They brought this case to HRCM and we had to say, ‘no we can’t investigate that’. Because if we did investigate, we’d have to investigate each and every case or I would be open to accusations of favouring family members.

If we take a case like this it has to really do with the sovereignty of the country – we can’t handle so many cases otherwise. Right now we are investigating the political abuse case of someone who is very close to the MDP, the high commissioner to Malaysia. He says he was abused, and we looking into it because that case occurred after 2000.

JJ Robinson: The Maldives is a very small country and you have many links here yourself. How has being president of HRCM affected you? Have you been subject to threats or intimidation?

Ahmed Saleem: We don’t have threats like we used to have. I was personally attacked, my car was attacked, I was attacked by people on the street in those days, when the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was in the opposition. The previous government attacked me and my family, and MDP was very supportive of us. But this the life of a Human Rights Commission. That is what it was all about. HRCM is misunderstood so I don’t take anything personally. I do understand when people criticise on street, but talk to them and most people don’t understand what we trying to do. Creating awareness of human rights is the main objective of HRCM.

JJ: What kind of public support do you think there is for HRCM?

Ahmed Saleem: We don’t see anybody working against us, and understanding of HRCM and its work has increased. In 2003 when we came into being everybody felt HRCM was only about caring for inmates in jails. We visit jails because there is nobody else to care for [the inmates], but that’s only a fraction of what we do.

People who’ve never been to jail don’t understand what happens in there. We work very closely with government because if the government fails, we fail. We ensure the government does its job and respect article 18 of the constitution, but some in senior levels criticise us and I feel that’s not right. We have enormous support from UN Ambassador for Human Rights, and with this in mind it is very damaging for the government to criticise the human rights commission. Because HRCM could fail.

JJ: Is there a risk of HRCM failing?

Ahmed Saleem: Yes there is a risk. If we keep being attacked by the government on a daily basis we have an obligation to let our friends in human rights circles know this is happening, and they would not be happy about this. They expect a government that came into being on a platform of human rights and democracy to work with HRCM and other independent commissions; they don’t expect the government to criticise the commission all the time.

JJ: Why is the government criticising the commission, then?

Ahmed Saleem: Let’s be very clear. I don’t think the government as such has any policy on it – it’s individuals [in the government]. Sometimes we find it difficult to be mature politicians instead of activists. I think this is something we have to learn quickly – there are those in high positions in the government who must change themselves into mature politicians, because the things they say can have enormous effect.

As far as the president is concerned we work very closely and I have enormous faith in him. For instance, he has told me personally to ‘never ever give up on torture.’ ‘If you do that, the government itself will torture people,’ he said. He has gone through it himself.

The president keeps saying ‘If we never let go of the past we’ll never have a future.’ But then he might say HRCM’s work will never be complete until it has investigated past abuses, and the next day he says something different. I don’t think he himself wants to dig into the past.

JJ: Who are these individuals in the government who have a problem with HRCM?

Ahmed Saleem: There are a few in the government. I don’t think some of them even believe in the policies President Nasheed has issued. He is milder, compared to some of these people.

I’m talking about only a few people here; these are the same people who criticise HRCM and other independent commissions. You’ve never heard the president criticise HRCM or any other commission. He is more democratic than most of these people and he knows value of commissions. I have great confidence in the president, but he has a very challenging job.

JJ: What are some of the areas in which HRCM hasn’t achieved what it set out to do?

Parliament's two months of leave is "irresponsible", says Saleem
Parliament's two months of leave is "irresponsible", says Saleem

Ahmed Saleem: One thing I would say is the culture of torture. I remember a few years back, on human rights day, I said there was a culture of torture in the Maldives. During the previous government someone came up and said ‘you’re wrong, you’re making a very big mistake – there is no culture of torture in the Maldives.’ I stick to my word and stand by what I said.

You can still see it happening. But unlike before the police have changed; police tactics have changed, and they want accountability. We are working with police and the police integrity commission, and the police are giving us all the evidence we need because they feel we should be investigating [complaints].

But I can be 100% sure that the new government has no policy of torture. It’s been the system – it’s the system that’s been wrong, whether it was President Nasir, President Gayoom… under that system anybody could do anything and get away with it.

That’s not the case now, and that is why [the previous government] was a dictatorship – there was no separation of powers, there was no justice. But right now the nature of politics in this country is so divisive it is threatening the existence of this country. I think at some stage the opposition must acknowledge that violence took place in the past.

JJ: Let’s look at some specific issues around human rights in the Maldives. How important is gender equality to the country’s future?

Ahmed Saleem: I think it’s extremely important. I don’t think you’ll find any other Muslim country that has so little discrimination against women; even in the government there are more women than men. At the top levels there are fewer women because they started late – this used to be a very male dominated society.

We have extremely well-educated young ladies these days and I think we should be bringing more of them into the government. Women in Maldives had voting rights long before many other countries, and the only hitch we had as far as human rights were concerned was that women were barred from running for president – that’s gone from new constitution.

I don’t think any there’s effort being made against women being active in society except by conservatives – extremists I would say, who are a threat to the very existence of this country.

JJ: How has religious extremism affected the country? And how has this changed under the new administration?

Ahmed Saleem: I think there is more extremism [in the Maldives] now than then. I also think that unless we can bring it under control we are going to be in danger. In our 2006 report we predicted that there would be serious problems in society not because of politics but because of extremism, and that’s become very true – we see it happening now. People are misusing freedom of speech and expression.

We have had moderate Islam [for a long time] and most of us belong to moderate Islam, but there are a few – I would saw half-baked – religious scholars who are advocating something totally different. I think the Islamic Ministry has to take huge responsibility for this.

JJ: Do you think the Islamic Ministry is fulfilling this responsibility?

Ahmed Saleem: I don’t think so. They should be doing much, much more.

JJ: Where are these scholars coming from? Why has this suddenly surfaced?

Ahmed Saleem: We never thought of religious extremism as a problem, so nobody really thought of doing anything about it. Now I think the present government recognises the danger, and are even trying to restrict people going to certain countries and certain colleges.

I think that’s very good. This state is a democracy and anybody can go anywhere, but when it threatens the whole of society and the country I think it’s time the government takes action. I heard the other day [the government] is trying to restrict people from travelling to certain madrassas in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

JJ: How much of this happening because people are seeking higher education opportunities that the Maldives cannot provide?

Ahmed Saleem: This happening because the people advocating this kind of extremism don’t understand what Islam is. Islam is a very simple religion. I don’t think Islam advocates any violence – it doesn’t do that. But some of these extremists think any non-Muslim should be killed, for instance, which is wrong. They go on jihad to various countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is highly against the religion.

I don’t know if this is anything to do with our education system. I think our own system should work on this, and try to [cater to] those who want to learn religion. I think the Islamic and education ministries should really think about how best they can handle this situation [internally], rather than have large numbers of people going outside the country and returning with different beliefs and only half an education. It’s a very serious problem that must be addressed.

JJ: Do you think human rights can be guaranteed under the current constitution?

Ahmed Saleem: Yes, I think so. We have never had a Constitution like this – it’s very democratic, but it’s not perfect; no constitution is perfect. I think it was done in a hurry in a way, and there are lots of changes that must come with practice. Our own legislation needs change – the Maldives is one of the few countries that has signed almost all human rights instruments, and there are so many laws that must be incorporated into Maldivian law.

This ought to be done by the Majlis (parliament). At a time like this, during a process of transition, there is so much to be done, and yet the members of parliament are going on leave for two months. I think that is very irresponsible – now is the time to do this, before people get fed up with democracy, before they start thinking that the former dictatorship was better because there was no quarrelling; there was stability under dictatorship. I don’t know why the Majlis has to take two months leave, and cannot take leave like we do. They are elected by the people why not take leave like we do? There are so many laws pending and so much work to be done.

JJ: Do you think the members of parliament are as informed about human rights as they need to be?

Ahmed Saleem: Democracy cannot function without rights. So much is missing because they are not in session. Some people are saying there is more peace in the country because the Majlis is not in session. It is going to take maybe 20 years to create the kind of parliament we are trying to imagine.

JJ: How much success has the media had in the last year in becoming independent, and what do you think of its current condition?

Ahmed Saleem: The media has developed a lot. But with media independence also comes responsibility – we need responsible journalism these days. I find there aren’t too many people who can investigate a report or analyse a situation and suggest recommendations for the government and independent bodies. People just go and report anything they want, and in most cases they want sensationalism. And they don’t follow up their reports – just one report and that’s it. The media needs to mature.

JJ: Until recently media in Maldives existed on government subsidies for quite some time. Do you think it is possible to have a fully independent media that receives subsidies from the government?

Ahmed Saleem: In order for the media to develop I think the government must provide some kind of media subsidies until they mature. The media is the fourth pillar of democracy, and unless there is a genuine and productive media I don’t think we can work as a democracy.

JJ: Has one of the failings of journalism in the Maldives been its political attachments?

Ahmed Saleem: The only problem is unfortunately we are still learning what democracy and human rights are all about. That people are misusing both is a matter of great concern – there is a limit to criticising the government and making the government responsible. I don’t think anywhere else in the world people call for the ousting of the government at every meeting of the opposition – you just don’t do that. I wish there was some kind of law to prevent that from happening.

JJ: Would that conflict with freedom of speech?

Ahmed Saleem: I don’t know, but at this time we must do what is right for the country. I’m not saying if the time is right the opposition shouldn’t call for a no confidence vote, it is the opposition’s mandate to do that. But not at every rally; you don’t do that without a reason.

It is a difficult situation for the government in power – extremely difficult after so many years without democratic rule. People are misusing freedom of speech and freedom of expression to a great extent, and that is a concern.

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Embezzlement accusations resurface amid World Bank investigation

Ibrahim Hussein Zaki, special envoy to the president, has renewed allegations that former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has US$80 million hidden in foreign bank accounts, including US$40 million in tsunami aid from the Emir of Qatar.

The last time the allegation was made, by Hassan Afeef, a former MP and now political advisor to the president, Gayoom successfully sued for defamation and Afeef was fined US$350.

Zaki insisted he “was only quoting what was said in newspapers in the UK in an interview with the Global Protection Committee (GPC),” describing it only as “an international NGO.”

The GPC’s leader, Michael Lord-Castle, told Minivan News during an interview in November 2006 “that we have been advised that between US$60-80 million has been transferred from Maldives’ governmental funds directly to various private bank accounts in favour of President Gayoom. Some of those funds we understand derive from donations made in respect to the tsunami disaster.”

When Minivan News asked ‘Commander’ Lord-Castle to disclose the countries and banks the money had been transferred to, he replied that “investigations are continuing and at this stage it is necessary to withhold certain information.”

Members of the controversial GPC, of which little record exists for an organisation “first formed in 1943 towards the end of the Second World War” and boasting “over 2,400 members ranging from ex-presidents, prime ministers and ministers of different countries”, travelled to the Maldives to observe the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s planned assembly for constitutional change on 10 November 2006.

Lord-Castle said the group had been commissioned to produce a report to the European Parliament on the political situation in Maldives, a claim denied by the European Parliament. He was deported from the Maldives together with four associates.

The GPC’s website has since disappeared from the web, while Lord-Castle’s current wikipedia entry describes him as a ‘well-known English businessman’ with varied involvement in an insolvency advisory service, a failed business-class airline, a vigilante ambulance service, and the supplier of a cleaning chemical called Vizexon promising to “kill all pathogens, including swine flu, H5N1, bird flu, SARS, influenza virus and HIV.”

Zaki said that he did not believe the accusation was defamatory “and if Gayoom feels he is getting defamed then he should file a suit against the GPC.”

“If [the accusation] proves true it will be fairly significant because first of all it was money from the National Treasury, secondly the money was for tsunami victims, and thirdly there would be reason to anticipate more [hidden money],” he said.

World Bank enlisted

Zaki pictured with members of the GPC in November 2006
Zaki pictured with members of the GPC in November 2006

Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed announced in September he was seeking the help of the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) to recover a suspected US$2 billion in embezzled funds, stating that the money was needed to plug a budget deficit of 34 per cent of GDP.

“Many people have been in one way or another connected to this huge web of corruption,” Nasheed said, adding that international help was needed because of a lack of forensic accountancy skills in the country.

Gayoom’s assistant and former chief government spokesperson Mohamed Hussain Shareef (Mundhu) responded to the allegations by demanding Zaki “show us the evidence. If you have the details make them public, instead of repeating allegations. Maumoon has said, ‘go ahead and take a look, and if you find anything make it public.'”

“There is no evidence to link Gayoom to corruption,” he insisted. “What Afeef said was very slanderous. We threw the book at him, and showed in court that he had no evidence to back up his claim at all, not a single piece of evidence.”

He described the renewal of the allegations as “immature, especially dragging the Qatari government into this. We called them and they were as surprised as us – senior officals in their government had no clue about [the alleged theft of US$40 million in tsunami aid]. Anyone of intelligence knows that aid money is not passed across a table by leaders. Gayoom could obviously not just take off with donor or tsunami aid.”

Mundhu expressed confidence that the World Bank’s investigation “would find nothing untoward. I know for a fact that our tsunami aid accounting mechanism was far superior to that of many other countries. All the aid money went through one oversight body headed by the then UN representative and the auditor general.”

The source of the allegations, the GPC, were one of many “voodoo NGOs” around at the time, he said. “We tried to find out what they were about, and basically drew a blank. Nobody in the UK knew anything about them.”

The allegations were intended “to wipe Gayoom off the political map,” Mundhu claimed. “The MDP is a minority government. Nasheed himself as an individual has no more than 25 per cent support in the country. Gayoom is the most popular individual with 45 per cent and over 100,000 die-hard supporters – clearly people thought he did a good job. Nasheed could not beat him one-to-one, and that reality is very hard [for the MDP] to stomach.”

The accusations of embezzlement, he suggested, were the activities of “certain unpleasant elements in the MDP. I don’t branch Nasheed in this, but [the party] was so intent on bringing in people with grievances towards the [former] government that they brought in unsavoury elements that now even Nasheed cannot control.”

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