Government takes over Gasim’s Villa airport

Government takes over Gasim’s Villa airport
January 19 16:05 2017

The government has taken over the Kaadehdhoo airport operated by Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim’s Villa Group and downgraded the company’s Maamigili airport to domestic status.

The regional airports department under the tourism ministry told state media that the 50-year lease agreement for the Kaadehdhoo airport in Gaaf Dhaal atoll was terminated Wednesday because Villa was in breach of civil aviation rules and standards.

The government is planning to take over operations within 15 days.

According to the department, the Maamigili airport’s international license was cancelled upon Villa’s request as the company was facing financial difficulties in managing the airport.

The moves come after Gasim threw his weight behind former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and formed a new alliance with the 79-year-old’s faction of the divided Progressive Party of Maldives.

In late October, Gasim backed Gayoom’s decision to withdraw support from the government in the wake of the latter’s bitter struggle with President Abdulla Yameen for control of the ruling party, which split the PPM into rival factions led by the estranged Gayoom brothers.

Gasim’s Villa Group has meanwhile denied failing to meet civil aviation standards at the Kaadehdhoo airport.

Rilwan Shareef, managing director at Villa Air, told Vnews that the government has not notified the company of the alleged violations, noting that the civil aviation authority previously gave time to fix problems identified in audits and inspections.

He also accused the government of failing to hand over an uninhabited island owed to Villa as part of the Kaadehdhoo deal as the company was operating the domestic airport at a loss.

“We are operating Kaadehdhoo airport even now at a loss of a million dollars. But we have made a big investment for airport repairs and development. The work of establishing a powerhouse at the airport and setting up a security scan machine is almost at an end,” he was quoted as saying.

But Villa did request the Maamigili airport status downgrade, he added, blaming the government for imposing requirements that are not expected of other international airports.

Rilwan, however, expressed hope that the dispute could be resolved out of court through talks with the government.

The government had also seized the Kaadehdhoo airport and downgraded Maamigili airport in August 2014 after Gasim warned that the current administration’s special economic zones policy would facilitate massive corruption.

Both decisions were reversed after the JP’s lawmakers voted in favour of the SEZ legislation.

The JP is the third largest party in the country.

Gasim meanwhile went on to form an alliance with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party in early 2015, prompting the tourism ministry’s seizure of five properties leased to Villa for resort development.

The central bank subsequently froze Villa’s bank accounts over US$90 million allegedly owed as unpaid rent and fines.

The crippling freeze was lifted after the two-time presidential candidate announced his retirement from politics and backed the government in several crucial votes, including a constitutional amendment that barred him from contesting in the 2018 presidential election.

The civil court later overturned the fine and the tourism ministry’s seizure of all of Villa’s properties.

However, days after Gasim appeared alongside Gayoom – fuelling speculation that the new alliance could threaten the previously unassailable pro-government majority in parliament – the high court scheduled hearings in an appeal lodged by the tourism ministry against the lower court rulings in favour of Villa.

“The Jumhoree Party is now in opposition to the government. The timing makes it very clear that these cases are politically motivated, targets our leader Gasim and is aimed at limiting political space for the party,” the JP’s deputy leader, MP Abdulla Riyaz, told the Maldives Independent at the time.

Gasim’s Villa Group is one of the largest companies in the Maldives with the holding company Villa Shipping and Trading operating businesses in shipping, import and export, retail, tourism, fishing, media, communications, transport and education.

Yameen has also been accused of targeting the businesses of ruling party lawmakers who sided with Gayoom in the PPM leadership dispute.

In November, the state-owned Housing Development Corporation threatened to seize a plot of land leased to MP Ahmed ‘Red Wave’ Saleem for a café in Hulhumalé whilst the health ministry cancelled a contract awarded to a company owned by MP Saudhullah Hilmy to build a health centre in a northern island.

The pair were among eight PPM MPs loyal to Gayoom who had announced a breakaway faction of the ruling coalition in the parliament.