Central Bank Governor Ahmed Naseer has defended his decision to remove the Financial Intelligence Unit’s top official shortly after he reported suspicious transactions involving former president Abdulla Yameen.
Both Naseer and former FIU boss Abdulla Ashraf were questioned by parliament’s public accounts committee on Monday evening. They were summoned after Ashraf alleged interference by the governor over the anti-money laundering watchdog, which functions as an independent agency within the central bank.
The pair levelled serious allegations against each other during the separate committee hearings.
Ashraf accused Naseer of “obstructing” his duties in reporting two suspicious transactions by then-president Yameen – the transfer of US$1 million to an escrow account set up by the Anti-Corruption Commission, and US$1.5 million deposited into his private bank account days before the September 23 presidential election.
The former president is presently on trial on charges of laundering 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 the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation during his administration.
He is also accused of violating an agreement made with the ACC to hold the US$1 million in an escrow account by transferring the SOF money to an investment account at the Maldives Islamic Bank.
Ashraf told MPs that the governor had called and asked him about the case when FIU analysts flagged the transaction.
Asked about the claim, Naseer admitted to calling Ashraf to clarify information but denied advising him to take a particular course of action.
The second transaction was flagged days before the presidential election.
“A lot of red flags were raised when we did the analysis of the suspicious transaction,” Ashraf said, explaining that it involved the head of state and large sums deposited and withdrawn in cash.
Shortly after he notified police on September 13, Ashraf said Naseer had called and complained “because I sent it without informing him.”
According to Ashraf, the governor then sent him a note on the following work day to arrange a meeting at the office terrace.
“He met me separately and talked a lot of political talk and he told me not to send any cases, especially high-profile cases, until the election was over,” he alleged.
But Ashraf disregarded the alleged interference and lodged a complaint with the police.
On the following day, he was transferred to a different post, which he contended was an unfair dismissal.
Ashraf shared screenshots with the committee of a Whatsapp call from Naseer along with a copy of the note requesting the terrace meeting.
During the meeting, Naseer allegedly told Ashraf that he was “either mad or trying to harass someone by sending this report this close to the election.”
The governor said he was facing threats of dismissal or jailing and expressed concern over “what would happen to my family if something happens to me.”
– Naseer hits back –
Appearing at the committee after the FIU boss, Naseer admitted to calling Ashraf and meeting him on the terrace.
But he categorically denied obstructing the FIU’s work.
Naseer also admitted to calling Ashraf on September 13 because he received a call from president Yameen an hour after the FIU reported the US$1.5 million transaction to police.
But he insisted that Ashraf was not transferred over the incident. The decision was based on suspicions of leaking confidential information, he claimed.
Naseer went on to accuse Ashraf of installing a bot – an application that runs automated tasks – within the FIU database and extracting information to a Telegram group, which was discovered after Ashraf was transferred.
He also accused Ashraf of refusing to cooperate with efforts to strengthen the FIU with assistance from the International Monetary Fund.
The governor also downplayed the independence of the FIU.
The agency has full autonomy over its decisions but it was “not an independent institution,” he contended, noting the governor’s authority to allocate its annual budget and to appoint and remove staff.
Naseer also repeated claims made in a statement released earlier this month seeking to justify Ashraf’s removal over alleged failure to perform his duties and delays in sharing information during 2018.
“In this regard, the FIU had delayed the submission of a report to the investigative authorities, regarding a large deposit into a high level politician’s account in June 2018,” the statement alleged.
“This in turn delayed the actions needed to be taken based on this report. The fact that no action was taken regarding this transaction was revealed at a time when Mr. Abdulla Ashraf was out of country.”
Ashraf also failed to prepare annual reports required by the anti-money laundering law, it added.
“In addition to this, when the initial information on the financial transactions of the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) embezzlement was received by the FIU, it was handed over to, received and signed by Mr. Abdulla Ashraf,” it continued.
“Likewise, all the analysis relating to this report was carried out by him. However, even when Mr. Abdulla Ashraf as the head of the unit had been in a position to take action on the MMPRC reports – after the resignation of Mr. Athif Shukoor (head of the FIU then) from his position – he had failed to take any action on these reports.”
According to the anti-corruption watchdog’s report on the MMPRC embezzlement scheme – a corruption scandal of unprecedented scale in Maldivian history – the FIU was alerted to large sums of money transferred and withdrawn by SOF, the company that was used to funnel stolen funds.
But the watchdog failed to report the transactions to police as required by the anti-money laundering law.
Earlier this month, the ACC revealed that former FIU boss Shukoor was under investigation by the police.
“I look forward to being fully accountable for the seven months I served as head of [the] Financial Intelligence Unit,” Athif tweeted following the ACC’s statement.
Last week, senior Bank of Maldives officials also accused former FIU heads of ordering the release of SOF’s bank account after suspicious transactions were reported to the watchdog.