The high court on Thursday overturned a stay order issued by the civil court to halt the seizure of a domestic airport leased to Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim’s Villa Group.
The civil court granted the injunction earlier this month citing “irreparable damage” to Villa if the tourism ministry had moved ahead with the takeover of the Kaadehdhoo airport in Gaaf Dhaal atoll before a final judgment was reached on the abrupt termination of the 50-year lease agreement.
But the high court ruled that the lower court had failed to take into account “the damage that may be caused by issuing such an order” as the grounds for terminating the agreement was Villa Air’s alleged breach of civil aviation rules and standards
The high court accepted the argument made by the attorney general’s office that allowing Villa to operate the airport could endanger the safety of passengers, noting that the company’s lawyers were unable to refute the basis of the state’s appeal.
The airport takeover followed Gasim’s backing of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s decision to withdraw support for the government after losing a tug-of-war with President Abdulla Yameen for control of the ruling party.
At the time of the evacuation notice, Gasim told newspaper Mihaaru that the civil aviation authority had previously given time to fix problems identified in their inspections.
“Even after their previous audit, we were given time to fix things. I think the only recommendation we have not implemented is bringing in a fire truck. That is not very serious. We have paid for the fire truck and are in the process of bringing it in,” the business tycoon and lawmaker said in January.
Rilwan Shareef, managing director at Villa Air, told Vnews that the government did not notify the company of the alleged violations.
The government had also failed to hand over an uninhabited island owed to Villa as part of the Kaadehdhoo deal, he said.
“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.
The company said it has invested more than MVR97 million (US$6.2 million) to develop the airport.
Gasim previously said Villa was planning to invest a further US$200 million. The state, however, told the court that it was prepared to compensate the company if the termination of the agreement is ruled unlawful.
The Maldives Independent was awaiting comment from Villa Air at press time.
The government had also seized the Kaadehdhoo airport and downgraded Villa’s Maamigili airport in August 2014 after the MP for Maamigili warned that the current administration’s special economic zones legislation would facilitate massive corruption.
Both decisions were reversed after the JP’s lawmakers voted in favour of the SEZ law.
The JP is the third largest party in the country and Gasim’s endorsement was pivotal in deciding the last two presidential elections.
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 ruling party’s leadership dispute. But the president has maintained that the judiciary is independent and free of undue influence from the executive.