SOF leaks whistleblower should be ‘praised, not punished’

SOF leaks whistleblower should be ‘praised, not punished’
September 06 14:54 2016

Transparency International and its local chapter have called on the chief prosecutor to dismiss charges against a senior bank official on trial for leaking documents related to the Maldives’ biggest ever corruption scandal.

Gasim Abdul Kareem, a manager at the Bank of Maldives’ Nilandhoo branch, is facing a jail sentence of eight months on charges of unlawful acquisition and illegal disclosure.

A verdict is expected on September 26.

The 50-year-old was arrested after emailing screenshots of transactions by a private company that channelled the bulk of some US$80 million stolen from state coffers.

Kareem must be “praised, not punished” for taking action against what he believed to be a corrupt practice, said Cobus de Swardt, managing director of Transparency International, a global anti-corruption civil society organisation.

“If money that should be used to benefit the people of the Maldives – to fund public services, for example –  is being siphoned off to fund the luxury lifestyle of the corrupt, the people have a right to know.

“The prosecutor general should dismiss this case. Kareem’s actions deserve admiration and he is entitled to protection, not prosecution.”

According to Transparency’s joint statement, John S. Kiernan, president of the New York City Bar, wrote to Prosecutor General Aishath Bisham on Kareem’s behalf on September 1, “pointing out the protections that whistleblowers are entitled to protection under law in the Maldives.”

Kareem was arrested on February 18, days after a damning audit report exposed how US$80 million from the state-owned tourism promotion company was funnelled into private bank accounts. He was held in remand detention without charge for more than four months and transferred to house arrest on June 30.

The trial at the criminal court has been closed to the public for undisclosed reasons.

His lawyer Nazim Sattar told the Maldives Independent after a hearing held yesterday to deliberate on sentencing guidelines that the prosecution is seeking six months for illegal disclosure and four months and 24 days for illegal acquisition. Since Kareem was detained for four months ahead of the trial, his total sentence would be eight months and 12 days.

“Our submission was that if the court were to find Kareem guilty he should be sentenced to one month six days, which could be translated to a fine. The punishment is the minimum for class one misdemeanouror,” Nazim explained.

The judge has the discretion to change the punishment to a fine of MVR20,000 (US$1,300).

Transparency meanwhile contended that Kareem’s disclosure is protected under the Maldives Banking Act.

Section 44 states that “actions taken in good faith in the course of the implementation of measure for the prevention of corruption and countering money laundering and financing of terrorism pursuant to laws or regulations dealing with such matters” cannot be considered unlawful.

Section 232 of the penal code also exempts cases “where the unauthorised acquisition of information is intended to expose wrongdoing.”

Mariyam Shiuna, executive director of Transparency Maldives, called Kareem’s prosecution “a test case for the Maldives and its whistleblower protection laws.”

She added: “The questionable financial transactions revealed from Kareem’s actions should have raised alarm bells a long time ago and yet no one had the courage to do what Kareem did.

“Instead of encouraging whistleblowing, Kareem’s persecution simply sends a signal to others who witness corruption that speaking out has severe consequences.”

According to the special audit of the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation, some US$65.01 million collected as acquisition costs from leasing islands, lagoons and plots of land for tourism was diverted into private bank accounts.

The bulk of the stolen funds was deposited into the Bank of Maldives account of SOF Pvt Ltd, owned by Mohamed Allam Latheef ‘Moho,’ a close associate of jailed former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb.

The police initially refused to reveal the identity of the BML customer involved in Kareem’s case, but admitted in May that it was SOF.

SOF later said it provided a “brokerage” service to the MMPRC and diverted the funds to the first couple and ruling party members.

But Yameen has denied any involvement in the unprecedented corruption scandal, insisting that the graft did not reach higher than his former deputy.