Jumhooree Party Leader Gasim Ibrahim’s Villa Company has won back all five properties seized by the government during a political crisis triggered by the JP’s split from the ruling coalition.
A civil court ruling last week that found the government’s seizure of Thaa Atoll Elaa illegal is the latest in favour of Villa in the dispute over the resort properties.
The tourism ministry had terminated the lease agreement of two lagoons and three islands leased to Villa and subsidiary companies for tourism when the JP formed an alliance with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party in February last year and launched an anti-government campaign.
The tourism ministry slapped a fine of US$90.4million, claiming the amount was owed as unpaid rents and fines for the properties.
In May, the central bank froze the bank accounts of Gasim’s Villa Shipping and Trading and subsidiary companies over the fine. The bank accounts were only released after the JP backed the government in several crucial votes in parliament and agreed upon a two-year payment plan.
The civil court ruled last week that the tourism ministry’s notice for the termination of the 50-year lease agreement for the island of Elaa was void.
The termination notice was in breach of the terms of an “amended and restated lease agreement” signed in December 2013, the court said.
In December, the civil court ruled that the tourism ministry’s cancellation of the leases for Kaafu Vaavedhdhi and Bolidhuffaru lagoons was invalid and in breach of the terms of the lease agreements.
In late August, the court had also ruled in favour of Villa over the cancellation of the lease for Gaaf Dhaal Gazeera, ordering the tourism ministry to comply with the lease agreement.
The Villa Group in June last year had won a stay order on the seizure of the fifth property, Raa Atoll Maanehfushi.
It is not clear if Villa Group is required to pay the fine as Villa officials and the tourism ministry were not responding to calls at the time of going to press.
The rulings in Villa’s favour comes after courts repeatedly rejected requests for stay orders on all five properties.
Gasim returned to the Maldives in early July after spending nearly three months overseas, during which he announced his retirement from politics once his term as MP for Maamigili ends in 2019.
He had also backed a constitutional amendment that disqualifies from contesting in the 2018 presidential election.
Several opposition politicians, including former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim and former President Mohamed Nasheed, were arrested and sentenced to jail shortly after the formation of the JP-MDP alliance, triggering a prolonged political crisis.
Adhaalath Party President Sheikh Imran Abdulla was charged with terrorism along with two JP leaders and accused of inciting violence at a mass rally on May 1.
The JP leaders, Ameen Ibrahim and Sobah Rasheed, subsequently fled the country and are living in self-imposed exile in the UK.
Gasim meanwhile declared his support for President Abdulla Yameen in the wake of the September 28 blast on the president’s speedboat, which the government says was caused by a bomb. Yameen escaped unhurt, but First Lady Fathmath Ibrahim was hospitalised for spine injuries.
Former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, several of his associates and three soldiers are in custody on suspicion of plotting the alleged assassination attempt.
Following the tax authority’s notice for US$90 million in late February, the Villa Group had maintained that it does not owe any unpaid taxes or fines. The company previously said that the claim cost it a US$80 million loan and brought it to the brink of bankruptcy.
In May, Villa 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.
Villa Hotels operate four luxury resorts in the Maldives. The parent company, Villa Group, operates businesses in shipping, import and export, retail, tourism, fishing, media, communications, transport and education.
In August, local media reported that Gasim was planning to sell the Royal Island Resort for more than US$100 million.
“I will sell what I have to sell to pay debts and give what I owe,” the business tycoon told The Maldives Independent at the time.
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