The Maldives president was part of a massive scheme to lease out dozens of islands and lagoons to tourism developers without public tender, according to an investigation published Tuesday.
A report from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) says islands were leased at discounted prices and the beneficiaries of the scheme included local tycoons and major investors from around the world.
The report comes days before an election scheduled for September 23 and is the second exposé implicating President Abdulla Yameen in massive corruption.
The investigation is based on leaks and documents – including the contents of three iPhones belonging to former vice president Ahmed Adeeb, internal government documents and banking records.
Files from the Tourism Ministry show the president helped with at least 24 of the no-bid lease deals done by Adeeb and that Yameen was involved in discussions over the no-tender lease of at least one island, Mathiveri Finolhu.
Reporters cross-checked the leaked files with public records and the Paradise Papers leak from offshore services firms in Bermuda and Singapore.
Singaporean billionaire hotelier Ong Beng Seng offered luxury accommodation to the president and vice president while his Hotel Properties Limited was negotiating for at least two islands.
Local tourism giants were among the biggest beneficiaries. Maldivian conglomerate Universal Enterprises – and members of the Maniku family that own it – got three islands.
Crown & Champa got one island through the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) and another four through a deal facilitated by Adeeb.
Ahmed Siyam Mohamed, a lawmaker and owner of the Sun Siyam brand of resorts, obtained two no-bid leases during Adeeb’s stint as tourism minister for a total of US$500,000.
A special audit from 2016 revealed nearly US$80 million was embezzled through MMPRC, mostly from acquisition fees paid for more than 50 islands. Cheques signed over to the MMPRC were funnelled into private bank accounts. It was the biggest graft case in the history of the Maldives.
– ‘Buck stops at Adeeb’ –
Yameen insisted that the scam “did not reach higher than Adeeb” and claimed he was unaware of the unprecedented theft.
The president authorised the lease of islands for resort development, he conceded, which was done to raise finances to pay off inherited debt. But there was no way the tax authority or finance ministry would have known about the missing funds, he contended.
In a statement released from prison on Monday, Adeeb said he would cooperate with a domestic or international inquiry promised by the opposition coalition if Yameen is defeated in the election.
Citing a statement he was shown by investigators from the anti-corruption watchdog, Adeeb alleged that Yameen had admitted to spending US$1 million deposited into his private account at the Maldives Islamic Bank.
Adeeb was first implicated in embezzlement from state funds in October 2014 — more than a year before the MMPRC corruption scandal was exposed in the wake of Adeeb’s arrest on charges of plotting to assassinate the president.
But Yameen accused him of harbouring “a personal grudge against Adeeb.”
A day after the October 2014 audit report was released, Niyaz was contentiously sacked by the ruling party-controlled parliament, four years before the end of his seven-year term.