Tax authority freezes accounts of Gasim’s Villa Shipping company

Tax authority freezes accounts of Gasim’s Villa Shipping company
March 23 14:08 2017

The Maldives Inland Revenue Authority has frozen the bank accounts of Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim’s Villa Shipping and Trading company over US$18 million allegedly owed as fines and unpaid rent.

The move comes days after Gasim predicted that Villa’s accounts could be frozen ahead of Monday’s no-confidence vote against the speaker of parliament.

MIRA reportedly did not give any notice seeking payment before freezing the accounts.

A spokesman for Villa told the Maldives Independent that the tax authority informed the company late on Wednesday night that the accounts have been frozen over US$14.6 million owed as fines and US$3.7 million owed as land rent for the island of Elaa in Thaa atoll.

On Tuesday, the high court overturned a civil court ruling in favour of Villa over the tourism ministry’s termination of the lease agreement for the island.

The island was among five properties leased as part of a settlement agreement reached with the government in December 2013 after the supreme court ruled that Villa was owed US$9.7 million from the state.

However, after the JP formed an alliance with the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party in early 2015, the tourism ministry cancelled the lease agreements for the five properties and the tax authority sought US$90.4 million allegedly owed as unpaid rent and fines.

The central bank subsequently froze Villa’s accounts. The crippling freeze was lifted after Gasim 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.

On Sunday, MIRA also froze the accounts of Yacht Tours Maldives, owned by former MP Abdulla Jabir.

In an interview with newspaper Mihaaru, Jabir claimed that the move was retaliation against his alleged funding of the opposition’s bid to remove Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed.

Jabir said Yacht Tours has not paid rent and fines for three resorts seized by the government because court cases are ongoing.

Exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed, who arrived in Sri Lanka earlier this week ahead of the no-confidence vote, has meanwhile condemned MIRA and vowed to hold the commissioner general of taxation accountable.

“It is clear that MIRA’s action is political when the accounts of businessmen are frozen every time the government is faced with a political difficulty. MIRA was not formed to be used as a political weapon,” the opposition leader tweeted.

Speaking at a press conference of the opposition alliance leading the push to remove Maseeh, MP Faris Maumoon predicted yesterday that lawmakers would face intimidation and pressure before Monday’s vote.

“Some MPs among us are receiving various offers, restrictions, and warnings,” he said.

His father, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, also weighed in on Wednesday.

“MPs calling for a no-confidence vote on the speaker of the Majlis are exercising a constitutional right. You cannot threaten them for that,” he tweeted.

Tuesday’s high court decision was the latest in a series of rulings that have overturned lower court judgments in favour of Villa after Gasim backed Gayoom’s decision to withdraw support for the government in late October.

By January last year, Villa had won back all five properties seized at the height of the political crisis in February 2015 after the civil court ordered the tourism ministry to comply with the lease agreements.

However, less than a month after Gasim threw his weight behind Gayoom, the high court overturned the civil court’s ruling over the seizure of the Vaavedhdhi and Bolidhuffaru lagoons.

In February, the high court also overturned a stay order issued by the civil court to halt the take over of the Kaadehdhoo airport in Gaaf Dhaal atoll from Gasim’s Villa Air.

Earlier this month, the high court ruled against Villa over the government-owned Housing Development Corporation’s seizure of plots of land leased to the company from Hulhumalé.

Gasim said Sunday night about the loss of Villa’s properties: “I’m not that worried about it. It was what Allah gave me. When the time preordained by Allah is up, it will slip from my hands.

“But I am sad that I might not be able to pay salaries for my 5,000 employees.”

After the company’s accounts were frozen in May 2015, Villa had advised some 4,500 employees “who find it hard to work with us to rebuild the company again” to resign and promised to pay outstanding salaries at a later date.

The JP is the third largest party in the country and Gasim’s endorsement was pivotal in deciding the last two presidential elections.

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.

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

But the president has maintained that the judiciary is independent and free of undue influence from the executive.