The government of Maldives has hired Washington’s most prominent lobbyist firm, Podesta Group, for a sum of US$300,000 to advocate on its behalf amidst calls for targeted sanctions on government officials for human rights violations.
A contract published on the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) office’s website states that the Podesta Group has been employed to “provide strategic counsel on strengthening” the Maldives’ ties to the US government.
The Podesta Group is to assist in “communicating priority issues in the United States-Maldives bilateral relationship to relevant US audiences, including the US congress, the executive branch, media and policy community.”
Ahmed Sareer, the permanent representative of the Maldives to the UN, signed the agreement on behalf of the Maldives. The contract runs from September 8, 2015 through March 7, 2016.
The Maldives is to pay Podesta group US$50,000 per month for six months.
The move comes after former President Mohamed Nasheed’s lawyers have threatened to lobby for targeted sanctions on government officials if the opposition leader is not released when a UN opinion on his imprisonment is made public in October.
Podesta’s employment with the government comes at a time of unprecedented American interest in the Maldives. In May, US Secretary of State John Kerry called Nasheed’s imprisonment on a terrorism charges “an injustice that needs to be addressed soon.”
In June, the US Senators chairing the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain and Jack Reed, urged the US to press for Nasheed’s release. In August, four members of the US Congress wrote a letter to President Abdulla Yameen, expressing concern over Nasheed’s imprisonment and the deterioration of democracy in the Maldives.
The government had previously hired Omnia Strategy, a London-based legal firm chaired by Cherie Blair, the wife of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, to respond to Nasheed’s petition at the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The value of the contract has not been disclosed.
Imthiyaz Fahmy, the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party’s spokesman, said: “The government of Maldives is spending tax payer’s money on saving face, to cover its blatant human rights abuses. President Abdulla Yameen has overseen an authoritarian reversal in the Maldives that has relations with the world, and now he needs to cover his tracks.”
The Attorney General’s Office this morning denied employing a second firm. After the contract was made public, Ismail Wisham, the assistant attorney general, said: “The foreign ministry contracted Podesta. We have not engaged alternative counsel on former President Nasheeed’s case.”
Omnia’s contract will end once a decision on the UN opinion is issued, he added.
The foreign ministry was not responding to calls at the time of going to press.
Cherie Blair has called Nasheed’s lawyers’ call for sanctions inappropriate.
The Podesta Group has represented BP Oil, Walmart, Bank of America and the governments of Myanmar, Egypt and Azerbaijan. It is said to have close ties to the US Democratic Party and President Barack Obama’s administration.
John Podesta, who runs Podesta Group with his brother Tony Podesta, also chairs the Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The New York Times has called Tony Podesta one of DC’s most powerful “superlobbyists.”
The government of Myanmar in April signed a US$840,000 with Podesta Group, according to The Hill.
According to Foreign Policy, Azerbaijan, a central Asian country criticised for human rights violations, employs Podesta Group for a monthly fee of US$75,000.
Podesta Group has recently been involved in deflecting criticism of Gulf States for failing to take in Syrian refugees. A New York Times article in 2011 said Podesta had helped stall a Senate bill that called on Egypt to curtail human rights abuses.
According to the Washington Post, Podesta earned US$1.15 million lobbying for Puerto Rico to advocate on various issues including statehood, transportation and infrastructure.
This article was updated at 8:30pm on September 27 to include a response from the Attorney General’s Office on an earlier denial of employing the Podesta Group.