Confusion over Sri Lankan fishing vessel traffic a political red herring: Zuhair

The government has confirmed that no specific agreement has been signed with Sri Lanka allowing Sri Lankan fishing vessels to cross Maldivian waters enroute to the Arabian Sea.

Maldivian Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem said yesterday that the only development of note with Sri Lanka’s External Minister was the release of seven fishing vessels detained by the Maldives on suspicion of illegal fishing.

The confusion was sparked after an article published on August 5 in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror referred to a statement from the country’s External Minister Neomal Perera, claiming such an agreement existed so long as vessels gave 48 hours notice to the Ministry of External Affairs in Sri Lanka or the High Commission in the Maldives.

“[Local newspaper] Haveeru went to town when Fisheries Minister [Dr Ibrahim Didi] said no such agreement had been signed with Sri Lanka,” President Mohamed Nasheed’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair told Minivan News today.

“The opposition seized it as an opportunity to whip up confusion and say the government had compromised the sovereignty of the Maldives – their latest favourite red herring.”

Zuhair said that on being informed by Haveeru that Sri Lankan’s External Minister had made such a statement, he had told the journalist that Sri Lankan fishing vessels – or the vessels of any nation – were already entitled to cross Maldivian waters as the Maldives was party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“The Maldives became party to it in 1982, became a signatory in 1994, and ratified it in 2000. It provides for ‘innocent passage’, and in the case of a fishing vessel requires that such gear be stowed,” Zuhair explained.

Article 17 of the convention states that “ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea”, while Article 24 further states that a state “shall not hamper the innocent passage of foreign ships through the territorial sea except in accordance with this Convention.”

‘Passage’ precludes activities such as research surveys, military exercises, “serious” pollution and fishing.

“This may have been taken from an erroneous observation from the Minister during his visit,” Zuhair said, “but the Daily Mirror story is broadly correct, and I told Haveeru that this was permission [Sri Lanka] continued to have. The embassy needs a system where authorities can ID the vessel [to combat illegal fishing].”

The Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture issued a statement yesterday strongly denying that the reported maritime agreement with Sri Lanka had been signed by the government.

While discussions about allowing passage for Sri Lankan fishing vessels through Maldivian waters had taken place on numerous occasions, “the Maldives has always said that foreign vessels could cross Maldivian seas only in accordance with Maldivian law.”

The press release explains that “innocent passage” was routinely granted for foreign vessels as the Maldives is signatory to the UN Convention on Law of the Sea but foreign fishing vessels without a license to operate in Maldivian waters are required to seek the ministry’s authorisation before entering the Maldives’ economic zone.

Moreover, the Ministry of Defence and National Security must be consulted before authorising passage for such vessels and the Fisheries Act “empowers the ministry to require monitoring systems in the vessels to locate its position through satellite.”

Parliament spent several hours yesterday debating the non-existent agreement with Sri Lanka, which led to a rare split in MDP ranks after MP Mohamed Musthafa vowed to submit a binding resolution demanding the government recall the ‘decision’ as “[Sri Lanka’s] intention is to steal our fish. I cannot just stand aside and watch while they take away our fish, which is the only source of natural resource we have in abundance. It is a right that has to be preserved for future generations.”

The issue quickly fell victim to the Maldives’ highly partisan politics, after head of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP)’s fishing branch, Ali Solih, denounced the supposed agreement as “an insult to Maldivian fisherman” and “a dangerous deal,” as the Maldives did not have the capacity to monitor illegal fishing.

DRP MP Ali Saleem then proposed a motion without notice yesterday demanding that parliament “look into what is hidden behind this. Did you know that even if Sri Lankan fishing vessels traveling to the Arabian sea are carrying sharks or fish catch, there is no way to know because of this agreement signed yesterday?”

MDP Chairperson ‘Reeko’ Moosa hit out at the opposition for labelling Sri Lanka as “thieves” in the pursuit of local political gain, and claimed the allegation was “very irresponsible”.

MDP MP ‘Colonel’ Mohamed Nasheed suggested during yesterday’s impromptu debate that “it would be better for us to find out accurate information on the matter”.

The Sri Lankan High Commission had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.


Human trafficking worth US$123 million, authorities estimate

An ongoing police investigation into labour trafficking in the Maldives has uncovered an industry worth an estimated US$123 million, eclipsing fishing (US$46 million in 2007) as the second greatest contributor of foreign currency to the Maldivian economy after tourism.

The authorities’ findings echo those first raised by former Bangladeshi High Commissioner Dr Selina Mohsin, reported by Minivan News in August last year, and which saw the country placed on the US State Department’s Tier 2 watchlist for human trafficking.

However prior to the current investigation, ordered by President Mohamed Nasheed and which involved the military taking over immigration and human resources duties for a two week period, few facts were known about the Maldivian side of the operation.

“People have been creating fraudulent companies and using them to apply for fraudulent work permit quotas, and then diverting these quotas to keep bringing in illegal workers,” said President Nasheed’s Spokesperson, Mohamed Zuhair.

“A would-be worker [overseas] pays money and ends up here on fraudulent papers obtained by a bogus agent, from quotas at a non-existent company,” Zuhair said. “Sometimes they are expected to work for 3-4 years to make the payment – workers have told police that this is often as much as US$2000.”

Authorities currently estimated the industry to be worth US$123 million a year, he said.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam told Minivan News that many illegal workers identified by police through the investigation – the majority from Bangladesh – had sold their land, their property and moved their families to pay the fees demanded by the bogus recruiters.

When they arrive they find the job a totally different prospect from what they were led to expect, he said.

“Sometimes there is no job and they are released straight onto the street. We found some people who had paid before coming – they arrived at the airport and nobody came to pick them up,” said Shiyam. ”The case is very serious – this is not the way things should be, and it has been going on for a long time.”

Zuhair said that in some cases workers brought to the Maldives were themselves recruited to help enlist others from their country – in addition to seven Maldivians, 12 expatriates have been arrested during the case so far.

Paper companies and ministerial corruption

The expansive investigation has seen 18 ‘paper companies’ raided by the police commercial crime unit, headed by Inspector Mohamed Riyaz, who revealed to the media last week that police had seized 4000 passports confiscated from trafficked workers.

Two of the seven bogus companies identified as trafficking workers, Ozone Investments Pvt Ltd and Arisco Maldives Pvt Ltd, had brought in 3000 workers between them.

Using the fake companies, the traffickers fraudulently obtained work permit quotas for non-existent projects from the Human Resources Ministry by stealing the identities of unwitting Maldivians, or even the deceased. Police had received many complaints about such forgeries from the confused third party, Riyaz told the media.

Moreover, many of the quotas requested from the Human Resources Ministry had been approved despite obvious warning signs such as the importing of construction workers for specialised IT projects, Riyaz said.

Zuhair told Minivan News that while he was unable to “point fingers” as the investigation was ongoing, the current findings implicated senior officials in both the Immigration Department and the Ministry of Human Resources.

In addition, the persistent use of fraudulent companies implied further scrutiny of the Ministry of Trade was required, Zuhair said.

Trade Minister Mahmoud Razee confirmed to Minivan News that the Ministry was providing information to police as requested. Establishing a company in the Maldives carried few requirements under existing laws, he explained, “and even before this we have been proposing amendments to company law to require additional clearances for directors, based on their records.”

Even for those individuals found guilty of the crime labour trafficking presently represents a violation of the Employment Act, and only carries a small fine.

Zuhair said punishment was a matter for the judiciary “and I’m confident justice will be done”. However he acknowledged that the greatest impact would come from exposing those involved: “The people involved will be named and shamed,” he pledged, which would limit their capacity for further fraud or criminal enterprise and hopefully ward off further victims.

The investigation was ordered by the President, he noted, as the Immigration Department and the Human Resources Ministry “were each accusing the other for the problem. The government has stepped in as a neutral party to conduct a holistic investigation, without incrimination.”

He said the government would need to “seek assistance” to deport the large numbers of illegal workers the investigation was likely to uncover.

“The origin countries also have a responsibility to repatriate their nationals,” he said.

Minivan News asked Zuhair why the government had only acted after several years of accusations that labor trafficking was prolific in the country – the US State Department recently renewed the Maldives’ position on the trafficking watch list for the second year running.

“The accusations have been apparent for the last few years, but the extent to which the situation has developed, and the lines between system error, human error and intentional fraud have been unclear. It has now become clearer,” he said.


Islam allows use of drugs for medical treatment, says Zuhair

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair has said that Islam permits the use of narcotics under exceptional circumstances, such as in the treatment of drug addicts.

Speaking at a ceremony last night marking International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, prominent religious scholar Sheikh Ilyas Hussein said that even a small amount of drugs were not allowed in Islam, and claimed that illegal drugs “are no cure”.

‘’These religious scholars lack information on the topic, they don’t really have adequate information on drug abuse treatment,’’ Zuhair said. ‘’Scholars have to collect more information before they preach.’’

Zuhair explained that opiates were commonly used as pain killers, and questioned why illegal drugs would be disallowed under Islam if it permitted opiates to be injected into the body prior to painful operations.

‘’The government’s aim is to reduce the amount of new drug users, and we have seen progress,’’ he said. ‘’Police statistics show a 50 percent reduction in new drug users last year compared to previous years.’’

Zuhair credited the government’s decision to combine three sessions of school a day into one session with reducing the number of young people on the streets with nothing to do, placing them at risk of drugs and gang involvement.

‘’Formerly when we had three sessions, children studying in the first session would finish school at midday and go home. His mother and father would not be around and he had a lot of free time without anything to do,’’ Zuhair explained. ‘’Then he goes out and join the gangs and starts doing drugs.’’

Zuhair also said penalties and treatments for hard drugs and soft drugs in the Maldives were different in other countries, but said that in the Maldives users of both hard and soft drugs received the same penalties and treatment.

He signaled the government’s intention to seek amendment to these laws, but said this would depend on the level of public awareness and understanding of the issues.

Sheikh Ilyas in his speech last night said that is was impossible to combat the drug issue by administering drugs in increasingly small doses.

He said that the penalty for taking drugs was 40 lashes if it was the first time and more for second time, with harsher penalties also permitted under Islam.

A former drug addict told Minivan News that he agreed with Sheikh Ilyas and that the best method was “stopping it at once”.

‘’I myself tried to recover taking it little by little, and it did not work for me,’’ he said. ‘’There are some others who tried that method and succeeded, but most of the time it is successful only if you try to stop it at once.’’

He said the most important thing for addicts seeking to stop taking drugs was the support from people around him or her, “especially friends and family.”

‘’He has to understand that he is suffering the consequences of his own actions and has to go through the pain [or withdrawal], understanding that it does not last forever and that taking drugs again as a temporary cure is not a permanent solution,’’ he said.

He described the rehabilitation facilities in the Maldives as “useless places.”

“Firstly, the government needs to bring major amendments to the laws, categorising drugs and bringing in other changes to overcome the drug issue,’’ he said.

Society needed to be more aware of illegal drugs and how to cure addiction, he suggested.


Cabinet to reduce duration of criminal records to boost youth employment

The cabinet has discussed the possibility of decreasing the duration of criminal records to encourage greater youth participation in the workforce, after noting that many skilled youth job applications were being dismissed because of criminal records for minor offences.

The matter was presented by Youth Minister Dr Hassan Latheef on June 7 and the cabinet formed a sub-committee to study the issue.

‘’’The Cabinet members noted that youth accounted for over 43 percent of the population, and in the current job market criminal records were a barrier to job-seeking for many young people.’’

The President’s Office said that cabinet ministers had agreed that the existing system, which requires five year-criminal records, barred many educated and skilled youth with minor offences from gainful employment.

‘’Members agreed that lowering the current standards of establishing good character would increase the number of skilled job seekers,’’ President’s Office said.

The government will announce a procedure for conducting background checks of job seekers for criminal records, said the President’s Office.

Press Secretary for the President, Mohamed Zuhair, said the objective of decreasing the duration of criminal records was mainly to help recovered drug addicts who often have difficulties in finding a job due to their record.

‘’The government is currently discussing with all the concerned authorities such as Department of Penitentiary and Rehabilitation Services (DPRS), Parole board, Clemency board and so on,’’ said Zuhair. ‘’When the amendment to the procedure is brought I think the duration of criminal records may be reduced to perhaps three years.”

Currently those arrested on suspicion of violating a law also have a criminal record filed in their police report.

‘’Incrimination is something that this government condemns. We are currently working to solve this issue,’’ Zuhair added.


DQP threatens government with legal action over fishermen’s subsidies

The Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) has said claimed that Rf100 million (US$6.42 million) included in the government’s budget for the year 2011 for diesel subsidies for fishermen has not been given.

‘’It is a great concern for the fishermen and their families that they don’t have a penny left to take home after working the whole day,’’ said DQP in a statement yesterday.

The party accused the government of failing to develop the fisheries industry for the last two years.=

‘’We call on the government to give out these subsidies immediately,’’ said the DQP, threatening to file a suit for fishermen’s rights if the government failed to deliver the subsidies in 21 days.

Mohamed Zuhair, Press Secretary for the President, told Minivan News that the DQP was not working for the rights of fishermen.

‘’They are politicising the issue for political gain,’’ Zuhair said. ‘’The government has been working on delivering the subsidies program for fishermen and I think it will commence very soon.’’

He said that the government had been trying to establish criteria for the program and would launch it soon.

‘’It is not as easy as just going up to the boat captain and handing over the money. It has to administered,’’ he added.


EPA Director General approved for voluntary redundancy three weeks before sudden departure

Former Director General of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) Mohamed Zuhair had given notice that he intended to participate in the government’s voluntary redundancy program three weeks before his sudden departure last week, Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam has revealed.

Zuhair resigned publicly stating that his departure was due to “political interference” in the EPA’s fining of local business tycoon Mohamed ‘Champa’ Moosa – the owner of opposition-leaning private broadcaster DhiTV – for conducting dredging and reclamation works around Thun’bafushi without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

Photos obtained by Minivan News, corroborated by the eyewitness accounts of foreign experts, suggested that Thun’bafushi had been used as a dump site, with piles of old machinery, oil drums and used car batteries rusting in the sun. At the time the photos were taken, a number of sharks were also being kept in a concrete tank containing less than a foot of tepid water.

The EPA labelled Champa an “environmental criminal” and fined him the maximum penalty of Rf100 million (US$6.5 million) after the EPA assessed damage to the area as amounting to Rf2,230,293,566 (US$144.6 million), under new enforcement regulation introduced in February.

“Thun’bafushi has been an issue long before we took office,” Aslam told Minivan News, explaining that the previous administration had initially rented the island to Champa for Rf 100 a year (US$6.40) under an agreement that stipulated that he “not do anything detrimental to the environment – he was allowed to grow trees and monitor the shifting of the islands. He was not allowed to reclaim or extend the island.”

However Champa had conducted these works without ever submitting an EIA, Aslam said.

“The area has been surveyed 2-3 times now, and last year the Director General attended himself a survey to assess the cost of the damage.”

The government had on several occasions asked Champa to explain himself, and he had corresponded with the EPA, Aslam said.

“Champa disputes he has done anything illegal, and states that has done everything according to the initial agreement.”

Champa’s lawyer, Aslam noted, “a professional with a background in island morphology”, had claimed that the Maldives did not have the capacity to do an accurate assessment.

Champa has yet to appeal the EPA’s formal issuance of the fine, Aslam said, “and it is up to him to take the matter to court.”

Aslam disputed Zuhair’s parting public accusation that the government had interfered in the fining of Champa, noting that several resort properties had also been fined for unapproved reclamation works.

“We know this accusation to be inaccurate,” Aslam said, explaining that Zuhair had expressed his decision to take the voluntary redundancy package three weeks ago.

The Asia Development Bank (ADB)-backed redundancy incentive program offered lump sums of up to Rf200,000 (US$13,000) as well as scholarships and preferential SME loans to civil servants in an attempt to downsize the state budget. The deadline for applications was May 31.

Zuhair’s decision to apply for the program had caught the government by surprise, Aslam said, explaining that he had met with the EPA’s Director General to try and retain him.

“His reason was that government pay was not meeting his financial needs, and he was looking to move to the private sector. We offered to move him to another department that would allow him to also work in the private sector – which is not allowed under the EPA’s regulations.”

Aslam said he became concerned when he pressed Zuhair for an explanation, “but he said on this matter he couldn’t tell us anything further.”

“We asked asked him then if this was a matter of national security, but he said no. So we respected his decision, and he submitted [the voluntary redundancy forms] with the Ministry of Finance, and we were just about to sign them – my signature was to be the last.”

Around this time Zuhair was allegedly sent a letter containing a mobile phone SIM card and a slip of paper note requesting he use it to call Nawal Firaq, the CEO of DhiTV.

Minivan News understands the letter containing the note and SIM card, registered in the name of a Bangladeshi labourer, was delivered to Zuhair’s flat on Friday morning but instead found its way to police.

Firaq denied knowledge of the letter when contacted by Minivan News.

In the police inquiry subsequent to his resignation Zuhair cooperated with police but denied any knowledge of receiving the letter.

“This is Champa building his court case by attempting to question the independence of the EPA,” Aslam suggested, noting that as the EPA’s Director General, Zuhair’s signature was on all the correspondence with Champa, including the notice informing him of the fine.

Despite Zuhair’s expressed financial concerns, his sudden resignation following the fining had meant he had forfeited his entitlement to the redundancy package he had applied for, Aslam noted.

“The numbers don’t add up,” he said.

The EPA’s Director Ibrahim Naeem told Minivan News that neither he or the EPA had received any communication from Zuhair following his sudden resignation.

“I heard his words on television, and some of them did not match his actions,” Naeem said. “He was the guy who signed the letter [fining Champa]. Why would he have done so if he was not happy about it?”

As to why Zuhair would have resigned before receiving his resignation chit from the civil service commission, “that is a very big question, and the answer is not very clear.”

Minivan News has sought to contact Zuhair for several days in regards to his resignation, but his phone appears to have meanwhile been switched off. The EPA and the Environment Ministry have also reported difficulties contacting him.

Minivan News also sought response from Champa but he was not responding to calls at time of press.


TEAM calls on government to hasten introduction of minimum wage at Rf5000

The Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM) has urged the government to implement a minimum wage, to address a growing gap between the rich and poor.

“TEAM believes that the most important thing to do in order to change the current situation of all persons working in the tourism industry is to implement a minimum wage,’’ said the organisation.

‘’A minimum wage is also important to avoid the potential bankruptcy of small and medium businesses and to eliminate the differentiation between the rich and poor.’’

TEAM urged the government to conduct a fair survey and to determine an adequate minimum wages, “instead of only listening to few influential big businessmen.’’

TEAM claimed the minimum wage for those working in the tourism sector should be at least Rf 5000 (US$325) per month.

Vice President of TEAM Maurrof Zakir said that Rf5000 for resort workers was determined after taking into considering the GDP of the country, salaries of civil servants and the amount of money tourism resorts make per month.

‘’Usually a tourism resort makes US$2-3 million every month,’’ he said.  “But only US$200, 000 at the most is the amount spent on wages. Our estimates do not show that the tourist resorts will suffer any loss by paying their staff a minimum wage of Rf 5000 per month.’’

He also recommended the government  set the minimum wage differently for each sectors.

In last week’s radio address, President Mohamed Nasheed promised that the government would set a minimum wage this year to ensure a decent living.

In January this year, a bill governing the minimum wage of people employed in the Maldives was sent to parliament by MDP Parliamentary Group Leader ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik.

“It is important for everyone working in the Maldives to be certain of the minimum wage that can be given to them – that is a right of every citizen. That’s why this bill is being drafted,” Moosa said.

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair did not respond to Minivan News at time of press.


Police refuse to comment on reports of deputy commissioner’s suspension

The Deputy Commissioner of police Mohamed Rishwan has been reportedly suspended for allegedly disobeying an order from Home Minister Hassan Afeef concerning the Thulusdhoo atoll office, reports SunFM.

SunFM reported that the Home Minister ordered police to take over the Atoll Office in Thulusdhoo and that the Deputy Commissioner had refused to do so without a court order.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam said he did not want to comment on the issue, and could not confirm whether the report was true.

Afeef told Miniban News that the position of Deputy Commissioner “is not given by me and [the matter] is not related to me.”

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair told Minivan News that he had not yet received the information.

”The police are an independent body,” Zuhair said. ”They work under the law.”

Zuhair recommended Minivan News contact Commissioner of Police for comment, however Ahmed Faseeh was not responding to calls at time of press.

He said that if something like this had occurred, the press office would be informed. “I have not received such information yet,” he said.

Zuhair said the government had decided to file a case in the court to solve the issue in Thulusdhoo, in which the local population have clashed with police over whether Kaafu councilors are permitted to relocate the atoll office to Thulusdhoo. The government has disputed that the councilors have the authority to do so.


Police decline to reveal identities of political figures involved in Facebook nude photo blackmail case

Police have declined to reveal the identities of political figures and government officials involved in the nude photography obtained by Facebook blackmailers.

The blackmailers used a Facebook account pretending to be an attractive blonde woman, and reportedly coerced hundreds of Maldivians to record their nude videos and pictures through their webcam and send it to them. After receiving the pictures and videos, they used them to blackmail the persons involved – many of them believed to be national politicians and senior government officials.

Police discovered explicit videos and pictures of hundreds of Maldivians on the hard drives and laptops of 14 people arrested in connection with the crime earlier this week.

”We are still investigating the case, but so far we cannot reveal the identities of any of those involved,” said a police spokesperson. ”We cannot confirm any names, just not yet. We will be revealing more information later.”

Daily newspaper Haveeru interviewed a person who claimed to have seen some of the material, who said that MPs belonging to both the opposition and the ruling party had fallen for the scam, as well as prominent businessmen and “national figures”.

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said that none of the events reportedly depict “would have taken place inside the President’s office.”

”We don’t have Facebook, MSN or any other social networks on any computer of the President’s Office,” Zuhair said. ”It is nothing to do with the government or the president.”

Zuhair added that “for instance there might be torturers among people who build streets, but that does not mean all the street builders are torturers.”

Meanwhile, the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) has sent a letter to the President’s Office, calling the president to remove government officials involved in the case from their posts ”or if you do not remove them from their posts it will be taken as meaning that you are supporting such activities.”

The DQP called on the government to take action against those involved “as soon as possible.”

Several blogs have speculated on the names of those caught up in the scandal, but police would not confirm the identities of those compromised.