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Last Minute Corruption Expose' Throws Maldives Presidential Election into Chaos

September 19, 2018

A new investigation published September 18 says Maldives’ President Abdulla Yameen is continuing his record rate of corruption in the illegal lease of unpopulated islands and lagoons.

One of the many tropical resort areas in beautiful Maldives. Many of the Maldives' uninhabited islands have been leased illegally to foreign investors, often by bribing government officials allegedly reaching all the way to the country's current President.

On the eve of a Presidential election coming up on September, President Yameen and his cronies have been accused in a government scandal a new report calls “an orgy of corruption”. Yameen is also personally charged with looting the country's precious uninhabited islands for his own financial gain.

The report, published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) described how government officials in the Islamic nation went about leasing a minimum of 50 of the country’s tropical islands to outside companies. Those leases were sold to private bidders, hotel chains, and other companies without public tender of any kind. The country’s senior auditor says that is illegal under Maldives law.

As reported, under President Yameen the country launched on what has been referred to as a “fire sale” of approximately 50 of the nation’s tropical islands. The study also says most of the money associated with those leases was embezzled and hidden away by those officials.

The OCCRP findings also ay President Yameen was integral in clearing a minimum of 24 of those contracts. He is also accused of being directly in the negotiations for one of the lease sales.

The accusation of the President’s direct involvement is based on uncovered chat logs and other materials, so it is far more than just heresy. It involves Ong Beng Seng, one of Singapore’s wealthiest citizens and a hotel magnate who already owns a number of resorts in the Maldives, through his company Hotel Properties Limited (HPL).

According to the investigation, Ong met with the President and former Vice President of the Maldives and offered free hotel rooms to both of them. Shortly after the meeting, Ong was given leases to two uninhabited islands within the country. One he was charged $5 million for and the other he was given for free.

The new report includes shocking testimony of individuals who say they brought bags of cash to the president as outsiders worked him to close deals. The OCCRP also uncovered a plan to launder over $1.5 billion of cash for the President and his staff, as part of a massive bribery and embezzlement scandal in the administration.

Although the President has claimed innocence of the charges leveled against him, he did acknowledge receiving bags of cash at his home in response to a 2017 expose’ by news organization Al Jazeera.

In that earlier investigation, Stealing Paradise, reporters disclosed how President Yameen and former Vice President and Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb coordinated to steal at least $79 million paid from outside tourism companies into the Maldives’ bank accounts. That investigation included secretly-filmed footage of three of Adeeb’s associates openly discussing how they brought cash bribes to the President and other politicians in the country. One such visit involved bringing nondescript black travel bags with as much as $1 million to Yameen’s home, Dhoovehi. One of the associates filmed was seen on camera laughing while he was saying that, “For the president, it’s difficult to carry even.”

The same earlier investigation was the one that showed Yameen’s ministers and his own aides had planned to use the Maldives central bank to launder an estimated $1.5 billion through the Maldives central banks.

In a speech broadcast on state television over a year ago about the cash delivered to his home acknowledged the receipt of the cash but denied he had done anything wrong. He said the money was spent on helping elect some ruling party lawmakers he and Adeeb wanted elected, and that “Ahmed Adeeb spent on them.” He also protested that his wasn’t the only one who had cash delivered to his door. “It wasn’t only Dhoovehi that the cash entered in boxes,” he said.

The big question of course is that if he knew the money was tainted, why didn’t he turn in those who delivered it and turn the money over to authorities?

How the Scam Started

The islands-for-corrupt-money scheme was long in the making in the Maldives.

Under the law, uninhabited islands in the country are officially under the management of the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture. According to the investigations, the first lease-selling-for-illegal-gains were handled by Adeeb asking the President to reassign the islands desired by others into Adeeb’s Tourism Ministry.  That is based on statements from an internal individual, who said, “Obviously the President knew” what was happening.

According to multiple records, Ahmed Adeeb, when he was Vice President, concocted a scheme in partnership with Abdulla Ziyath, at the time the head of the Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC). The MMPRC began innocently enough in 2009 as an agency to promote the beauty and wonders of the country abroad. Under Ziyath’s leadership, it soon turned into the central control point for new island leases in the country.

Ziyath and Adeeb worked in tandem to funnel leases as best they could to those willing to pay behind-the-scenes bribes, and to steal payments from the country’s monies, starting from 2012. They were still hampered in their scheme by the legal requirement that all leases running up to 50 years can only be awarded after open bidding.

To get around that, they arranged to have the private companies wishing to acquire the leases to enter into joint ventures with the government. Being a government lease arrangement, the two could avoid the need for a public bid, since the government was simply leasing to itself. After the leases were awarded and appropriate bribes handed out to Adeeb, Ziyath, and presumably Yameen, the government would just separate itself from the deals. That would leave the private individuals with full control over the leases without any government involvement.

In the meantime, the money paid for the leases would often be deposited directly in non-governmental accounts and even laundered out of the country.

In 2014, the scandal blew up for the first time, with a report from Niyaz Ibrahim, then Auditor General of the country, who detailed how Ziyath’s MMPRC had apparently made millions of dollars involving foreign currency – and laundered via a company connected to Adeeb. Despite the report, Ziyath and Adeeb continued in their scheme, which often involved investors just going directly to the two of them, negotiating a price, signing a lease, and then paying the MMPRC directly.

Adeeb was eventually convicted in 2015 of attempting to assassinate President Yameen, after an explosion on Yameen’s speedboat. He was also convicted of multiple corruption charges at the same time. He is currently serving a 33 year prison term.

Abdulla Ziyath was convicted for his part of the corruption involving Adeeb. He is serving an eight year prison sentence.

In 2016, a separate audit showed other serious problems. An estimated $80 million which should have been paid to the MMPRC as leases was either never paid or just disappeared. The same audit also showed several of the leases allowed out by Ziyath and Adeeb had been deeply discounted from what might have otherwise been normal.

The same year, those close to Yameen in the administration helped ram through an amendment to the country’s laws about tourism. That change eliminated the requirement for public tenders entirely. With that gone, the trail connecting the government to deals would be harder to find. Those in opposition to Yameen called the amendment’s passage something that “legalizes corruption”.

The Stealing Paradise investigation came later that year, after which former Auditor-General Niyaz Ibrahim fled to Sri Lanka after receiving threats on his life for exposing the corruption.

The Election

Whether Yameen ever faces charges himself for the corruption, or if the corruption will ever stop, depends to a large extent on the outcome of Sunday’s Presidential election in the country. Even that is in question now, as opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party is concerned about the ruling government’s attempts to rig the upcoming election.

Solih was named the candidate for the Democratic Party after former President Mohamed Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison – on charges of terrorism. Many in the country criticized that sentence as being politically motivated.

Under pressure with the threat of what Yameen might do on Sunday, Solih has been working to rally his constituents to come to the polls and support him. He said that, “We are going to win this election. We have the numbers to overcome rigging.” He further said that while his party is “very worried about the situation”, it has “trust in the people”.