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Minivan Brief: ex-president’s money laundering trial concludes

  • US$55 million paid under a settlement agreement with Noomadi
  • Education ministry defends prioritising residents for Malé schools
  • Malé-atolls divided in the spotlight
  • Broadcasting commission president resigns before the impeachment vote

Former president Abdulla Yameen’s money laundering trial concluded on Wednesday after the criminal court heard closing arguments from the prosecution and the defence.

A verdict will be delivered on November 5, Judge Ahmed Hailam announced.

Yameen was charged in connection with US$1 million deposited to his personal bank account by SOF, a company that was used to funnel the bulk of US$90 million stolen from state coffers during his administration. The 60-year-old opposition leader is also accused of violating an agreement signed with the Anti-Corruption Commission to hold the US$1 million in an escrow account.

The former president denies any wrongdoing. A group of about 50 supporters led by former lawmakers protested outside the courthouse as the hearing took place.

Earlier this month, former central bank governor Dr Azeema Adam refused to testify as a witness for the defence.

The government has paid US$55 million as compensation to Noomadi Resorts and Residences for the cancellation of two housing projects, the ministry of housing and urban development revealed in a statement on Tuesday night.

An out-of-court settlement was reached after Noomadi filed two cases at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague seeking US$155 million in damages and legal costs, the statement noted. The government decided to negotiate as recommended by a ‘settlement committee’ formed to advise the president on compensation claims, it added.

The US$55 million settlement agreement was signed on August 25.

Noomadi was first enlisted in January 2011 during former president Mohamed Nasheed’s administration to build 600 housing units under a private villa model. The second agreement was signed during former president Dr Mohamed Waheed’s administration in May 2013 to build 500 housing units, a police academy and sewerage on three islands.

Both deals were cancelled by former president Abdulla Yameen’s administration. Former housing minister Dr Mohamed Muizz reportedly conceded during arbitration proceedings that they were cancelled in violation of the agreements.

Finance Minister Ibrahim Ameer told parliament on Tuesday that the state has paid MVR1 billion as compensation since the current administration took office last November, including a US$18 million arbitration award to NexbisUS$30 million payouts ordered by Supreme Court to WLT and MVR7 million awarded by Supreme Court as damages for medical negligence

The education ministry defended its policy on accepting new students to Malé city schools, in the face of criticism over alleged discrimination between residents of the capital and migrants from other islands.

Schools were instructed in a circular earlier this week to prioritise children with their permanent address in Malé for the 2020 academic year. The policy aims to offer placements to as many students as possible from the “catchment area” surrounding a school, the education ministry explained in a statement released on Tuesday night.

The new rules were needed because the number of children living in the catchment area of Iskandhar School and Jamalludin School far exceeded the capacity for grade one students (228 children for 90 slots in Iskandhar and 396 children for 120 slots in Jamalludin). The education ministry has also uncovered fraudulent applications, including claims of 40 to 50 first graders living in single households, the statement noted.

The new policy came under fire on social media amid renewed debates concerning the divide between Malé and the rest of the country. Nearly 40 per cent of the country’s 374,467-strong population resides in the congested capital city.

The Malé-Raajjethere debate also broke out in parliament this week with heated exchanges between ruling party lawmakers. Central Maafanu MP Ibrahim Rasheed’s call to provide housing to his constituents from the reclaimed island of Hulhumalé – which he suggested was a right of Malé residents – drew an angry response from other Maldivian Democratic Party MPs. Citizens from across the country deserve land from the artificial islands of Hulhumalé and Gulhifalhu reclaimed near the capital, they said.

The country’s second Human Development Index report – which found that the average income for a person living in Malé was one and a half times that of a person living in the atolls – identified migration to the capital as a cause of rising inequality, while the rich-poor divide was being exacerbated by a tourism industry that “operates as a powerful oligarchy and has given rise to an elite class that owns much of the country’s wealth.”

Mohamed Shaheeb resigned as president of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission after parliament’s independent institutions’ oversight committee recommended his dismissal. The impeachment vote was tabled in the agenda for Wednesday’s sitting.

During the previous administration, the regulator used a draconian anti-defamation law to slap hefty fines on private broadcasters, including more than MVR3.7 million (US$240,000) on Raajje TV for airing speeches deemed defamatory towards former president Abdulla Yameen.

But in his resignation letter to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Shaheeb denied any wrongdoing and blamed other members of the commission for imposing the fines. He was obliged to respect majority decisions despite reservations, he claimed, noting that he did not vote as the chair. The oversight committee was unable to show negligence or illegal actions to justify his removal, Shaheeb contended, calling the decision “unjust” and “unconstitutional.”

The oversight committee also decided to recommend the dismissal of Fathmath Zaina, the commission’s vice president. Former members Hassan Nabah and Ismail Sofwan resigned during the committee inquiry. Appearing at the committee in June, the commission’s members blamed each other for targeting Raajje TV at the behest of the former government.

The cases were initiated by commission members in the absence of formal complaints, Shaheeb said, accusing his former deputy Ismail Sofwan of leading the push and “acting as a whip.”

Shaheeb also claimed to have received a message from Yameen through Sofwan with instructions to shut down Raajje TV for a week during the February 2018 state of emergency.

“I said I can’t do it, I can arrange a commission meeting and you can discuss. But as it turned out, my father was sick and I couldn’t go to that meeting. I found out later they decided to write a letter to MNDF to shut down RTV under emergency powers, I was surprised to see that letter,” he told.

Pressed by MPs on the committee, all commission members denied acting on political influence. But three members – Fathimath Zaina, Zeena Zahir and Hassan Nabah – admitted receiving phone calls from lawmakers urging the regulator to shut down the opposition-aligned TV station.

Zaina, Zeena and Nabaah were also asked about their involvement in Yameen’s campaign activities. Asked her role in organising an event for the president, Zaina argued that the president’s meeting with senior citizens was “not a political rally.”

Asked why he did not resign, Shaheeb said: “Even if I resigned, someone else would have taken my place, and things would have continued as it was because the spirit inside the commission was to do these things this way. Since my whole career was built in media I didn’t intend to resign, and it is not the culture in the Maldives to resign when things go wrong.”

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Source URL:  Maldives Independent

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