Former Home Minister Umar Naseer has filed a complaint with the police seeking defamation charges against MP Ibrahim Falah of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives.
Speaking at a PPM event on Tuesday night, the MP for the Inguraidhoo constituency in Raa atoll accused Naseer of corrupt practices during activities held in July 2015 to celebrate 50 years of independence.
“Look at Umar Naseer. He will not say a word. Small companies were set up for just 10 to 15 days during the Independence 50 celebrations. But he accuses other people of corruption,” he said.
“Umar can take me to court. I will prove my claim. He will not go to court.”
Shortly after Falah’s speech, which televised live by the state broadcaster Television Maldives and the pro-government Channel 13, Naseer wrote a letter addressed to Police Commissioner Ahmed Areef and asked for an investigation of Falah’s remarks under the Defamation Act.
The police were authorised to investigate cases of slander and forward cases for prosecution after defamation was re-criminalised by a controversial law passed in August 2016.
I have lodged this complaint today to see if the law they passed is fairly enforced on them. pic.twitter.com/h44wKJQteX
— Umar Naseer (@UmarNaseerMV) April 4, 2017
Naseer told the police chief that the remarks constitute defamation as defined by the law since the allegations have not been substantiated by any state institution or proven in a court of law.
“Events related to the Independence 50 celebrations were not assigned to any companies in which I have a stake or to any companies with a stake of my wife or children,” he wrote.
“I have also stated that such a company had not made proposals for any government projects while I was in the post of home minister.”
MP Falah was unavailable for comment despite repeated calls.
The former home minister has also filed complaints against TVM and Channel 13 with the broadcasting regulator. The anti-defamation law holds broadcasters responsible for slanderous content aired during live coverage.
In March, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission slapped an MVR200,000 (US$13,000) fine on the opposition-aligned Raajje TV in the first punitive action taken under the defamation law, which authorises the regulator to investigate complaints and impose fines of up MVR2 million (US$129,700).
Failure to pay the fines within 30 days could result in the closure of the station or the jailing of individual journalists after cases are sent to court.
The re-criminalisation of defamation was widely condemned as an attack on free speech. A consensus emerged among the Maldivian media that the law would be the death knell of press freedom in the country.
Naseer is meanwhile under investigation by the anti-graft watchdog over alleged abuse of authority in awarding contracts for the Independence 50 celebrations.
In late March, Home Minister Azleen Ahmed accused his predecessor of awarding projects in violation to the finance laws and procurement regulations.
“We have noticed that work was contracted out without asking for quotations or any prior agreement. We have also information that the responsible person at the procurement department was bypassed and the minister himself awarded contracts to people he wanted,” he told the press.
But Naseer categorically denied the allegations, insisting that all contracts were signed with the finance minister’s written approval.
“I ask President [Abdulla] Yameen to defeat me at the ballot box. Not through ACC or Court,” the presidential hopeful tweeted promptly.
He has since told local media that he will contest as an independent in the 2018 presidential election, hinting that “political heavyweights” – former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim – would endorse his presidential bid.
After the corruption allegations, Naseer also sent out messages to his supporters on the messaging app Viber, explaining that the Independence 50 celebratory activities were organised by a special office set up by the home ministry and was overseen by a five-member cabinet committee.
“All the 50th independence day works were conducted with the written permission from the then-Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad,” he wrote.
He also stressed that the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Audit Office closely supervised the work of the Independence 50 office.
Desks were set up at the office for officials from both oversight institutions, he added.
“They checked all transactions related to it during that time. By the time the independence day activities had been wrapped up, they had not flagged any issues,” he said.
According to the finance ministry, a budget of MVR150 million (US$9.7million) was allocated for Independence Day celebrations.
At the time, Mohamed Hussain Shareef, former presidential affairs minister, was accused of graft in awarding a lucrative contract to the Newport restaurant for the official Independence Day banquet.
But the Prosecutor General’s office later declined to prosecute Shareef after the ACC forwarded charges of abuse of power to unlawfully benefit a third party.