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Defence witness refuses to testify in ex-president’s money laundering trial

The defence wanted to call former central bank governor Dr Azeema Adam.



Former central bank governor Dr Azeema Adam has refused to testify as a defence witness in former president Abdulla Yameen’s money laundering trial.

In response to a summons, the former governor informed the court that she could not attend as she was working overseas, Judge Ahmed Hailam announced at the start of Wednesday’s hearing. Since Azeema also said there was no testimony she could provide and declined to appear, Judge Hailam said he has decided not to summon her to court.

She was the only witness the defence planned to call on behalf of Yameen.

Azeema stepped down in August 2016 and relocated to New York after her husband Dr Ali Naseer took up the posts of permanent representative to the United Nations and ambassador to the United States. Naseer was appointed multilateral secretary at the foreign ministry after completing his term as the permanent representative last May.

Judge Hailam also decided to watch a video statement from former ACC chief Hassan Luthfee recorded during the police investigation. Luthfee left the Maldives prior to his resignation in July and refuses to return, alleging attempts to coerce his testimony. In a letter sent to the court, Luthfee also asked the judge to strike his statement from the record.

The major point of contention during the last hearing earlier this month concerned the admissibility of Luthfee’s video statement. The prosecution said it would establish that Luthfee was not under duress but defence lawyers argued the video was inadmissible as it was not submitted as evidence.

On Wednesday, Judge Hailam said he would watch the video but it would not be shown during the trial. The defence team will be allowed to watch it upon request, he added.

Asked by the defence whether he has decided to admit the video as evidence, the judge said he only decided to watch the video. A decision on “how much weight to give to the matters in the investigation statement” would be made later, he said.

The court is due to hear closing arguments at the next hearing on October 10.

– “Good intentions” –

Yameen was charged over US$1 million deposited to his personal account by SOF, a company that was used to funnel the bulk of US$90 million stolen from state coffers during his administration. The 60-year-old opposition leader is also accused of violating an agreement signed with the Anti-Corruption Commission to hold the US$1 million in an escrow account.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the prosecution and defence spoke about documentary evidence and witness testimony in the case.

The prosecution’s evidence included the escrow agreement, Yameen’s statements to the police and ACC, his asset disclosure to the audit office and the anti-corruption watchdog’s investigation report into the theft of more than US$90 million from the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation. A damning audit report released in February 2016 – which implicated former vice president Ahmed Adeeb and his associates in siphoning off acquisition fees paid to lease islands for resort development – was also submitted.

Cheques paid to the MMPRC were deposited to the accounts of SOF Pvt Ltd, which claimed to have provided a “brokerage” service and distributed money as requested to the first couple and senior politicians. Secretly filmed confessions with SOF’s owner  Mohamed Allam Latheef ‘Moho’ and two others about delivering stolen cash to Yameen were featured in an Al Jazeera corruption exposé released in late 2016.

SOF’s company secretary deposited two cheques of US$500,000 each to Yameen’s private account at the Maldives Islamic Bank in October 2015, days after US$1 million paid to the MMPRC as acquisition cost for leasing the island of Vodamula in Gaafu Alif atoll was diverted to SOF.

The president was made aware of the source of the US$1 million when he was questioned by the ACC in February 2017, Senior Public Prosecutor Aishath Mohamed told the court, which she contended establishes reasonable grounds to suspect illicit origin as stated in the 2014 anti-money laundering law.

In March 2017, Yameen transferred the SOF money to three other accounts at the Islamic Bank and deposited US$1 million from a different source to the escrow account, which was formed under an agreement signed in March 2018. The transfer amounted to the offence of “concealment or disguise of the true nature or source” of funds as specified in the law, the prosecutor argued.

The prosecution also referred to changes approved by the president in March 2014 to lease islands through the MMPRC, bypassing a competitive bidding process.

Addressing the court, Yameen contended that the prosecution has failed to establish how the transfer of funds between a customer’s accounts at the same bank could amount to concealment or disguise. The money was not laundered and remains at MIB, he said.

A court or investigative agency has yet to determine corruption or money laundering by SOF and MMPRC, Yameen stressed, citing a 2017 civil court judgment that referred to legitimate transactions between the companies.

The prosecution also failed to prove that the US$1 million deposited to his account was the acquisition fee paid for Vodamula as there was about US$800,000 in SOF’s account at the time, he continued.

“So the state hasn’t proved, and cannot prove, if it was that money or this money,” he said.

Yameen maintained that as far as he knew the money came from campaign funds and donations managed by former vice president Adeeb.

Disputing the prosecution’s key argument, he categorically denied a meeting at the president’s office with ACC president Luthfee and vice president Muaviz Rasheed, during which he was allegedly informed about the illicit source of the US$1 million. Neither the president’s office nor the ACC has provided meeting logs to prove otherwise, he said.

Yameen also defended depositing US$1 million from a different source to the ACC-held escrow account, offering three main reasons as justification.

As the ACC instructed him “not to touch the money at the MIB” a month before the agreement was signed, transferring the SOF money could have amounted to money laundering, he contended. It was also the ACC that wanted to open the escrow account at the Bank of Maldives instead of the Maldives Islamic Bank, he added.

But the initiative to form the escrow account was taken by the president, which showed “good intentions,” he said.

The ACC did not seek charges despite investigating the case for four years, Yameen said, noting that suspicious transaction reports from the central bank’s anti-money laundering watchdog were sent to police after his defeat in last year’s presidential election.

“I want to establish here that I have not committed a crime. I regret that this charge has been raised against me,” he told the court, alleging that the prosecution was politically motivated and influenced by the current administration.