The anti-corruption watchdog has launched a fresh inquiry to verify information revealed in an Al Jazeera’s corruption exposé aired earlier this month, further delaying its investigation into the Maldives’ biggest corruption scandal.
The Anti-Corruption Commission said the new inquiry will delay the release of a 600-page report compiled after its investigation into the theft of nearly US$80 million from the state-owned Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation.
“Several individuals we want for questioning, including those who have been in hiding despite Interpol red notices, have confessed to their part in the scandal. In the light of these confessions, we have to interview more people and investigate,” Hassan Luthfy, president of the ACC, told the Maldives Independent.
“Of course there will be a delay in publishing the report. But we are hoping to finish this new inquiry as soon as possible.”
The ACC probe was launched in October last year.
The MMPRC corruption scandal surfaced after then-Vice President Ahmed Adeeb’s arrest in October on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the president. Shortly thereafter, President Abdulla Yameen publicly accused his former deputy of using misappropriated funds to bribe the police and military.
Al Jazeera’s ‘Stealing Paradise’ documentary featured secretly filmed confessions by three associates of Adeeb about delivering the stolen MMPRC cash to the president.
The exposé by the Qatari network’s award-winning investigative unit was based on new evidence gathered from three mobile phones of Adeeb, who is now serving a 33-year jail sentence on corruption and terror charges.
However, the government dismissed the documentary as “defamatory and biased”. Yameen has also denied any wrongdoing, claiming the unprecedented corruption scandal did not reach higher than his former right-hand man.
In August, ACC’s Vice President Muaviz Rasheed also defended the delay in releasing its findings, citing the scope of the investigation and the number of people who were questioned.
But the anti-corruption NGO Transparency Maldives has criticised the 11-month delay, questioning the independence and efficiency of the watchdog.
“The need for a complete and sincere investigation cannot be understated. It is essential that the ACC complete its investigation without hiding evidence or trying to protect anyone involved in the scam,” said Thoriq Hamid, the NGOs programme manager.
Transparency has also called for a broad and independent investigation into the allegations raised by Al Jazeera.
It urged the Auditor General’s office, the ACC as well as the Prosecutor General’s office to “act in a timely manner to investigate and take necessary action against the cases of grand corruption being revealed with adequate evidence.”
But former Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim, who lost his job in 2014 after uncovering corruption leading to Adeeb, has questioned the ability of “systematically paralysed” watchdog institutions to investigate grand corruption in the Maldives.
Thoriq from Transparency also noted that corruption allegations involving the MMPRC date back to 2014, when Niyaz uncovered a US$6 million scandal implicating then-Tourism Minister Adeeb.
The second MMPRC corruption scandal was laid bare in a damning audit report released in early February, which exposed how millions of dollars from resort lease payments were funnelled into private companies linked to Adeeb.
The bulk of the stolen funds was deposited into the bank account of SOF Pvt Ltd, owned by Mohamed Allam Latheef ‘Moho,’ who later said the money was distributed to the first couple, the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives, and senior politicians.
The documentary shows Moho and two others – who fled the country before Adeeb’s arrest in October – confessing to distributing the stolen cash.
“President Yameen will know me personally… I was managing some of their funds,” says Moho in the film.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, the MMPRC sued Moho’s SOF to recover MVR160 million.
According to the lawsuit filed in the civil court, the MMPRC released the sum in two instalments, MVR158 million (US$10.3 million) and MVR 6.1 million (US$400,000), in 2015.
The money was released under an agreement to exchange US dollars to Maldivian rufiyaa. The MMPRC claims it never received the local currency, seeking the annulment of the contract with SOF.
The case is due to go to trial after the parties failed to reach a settlement after talks mediated by the civil court’s dispute resolution division.
In addition to siphoned lease acquisition costs, the MMPRC special audit found that the missing funds also include US$6.13 million paid to private companies to buy dollars, US$6.15 million provided as loans, and US$1.9 million released without any documentation.
Analysis of leaked statements of a US dollars bank account owned by SOF meanwhile showed that more than MVR1.3 billion (US$84 million) was funnelled through the front company between May 2014 to October 2015.
By the end of October, the SOF bank account balance was US$200,000, which was also transferred through several cheques.