The Maldives Islamic affairs ministry has been accused of corruption by the country’s anti-corruption watchdog, leading to an official probe by the body.
The Anti-Corruption Commission said it plans to investigate allegations of corruption in awarding Hajj pilgrimage quotas to travel groups, in a communication sent to the person who filed the complaint.
According to the ACC, the bidding and bid-evaluation process for the distribution of Hajj quotas included questionable practices that could lead to corruption charges.
One of the main points raised by the ACC was that while the ministry rejected bids from some groups due to missing documents, as stipulated in the procedure for bid evaluation, the ministry accepted proposals from two travel groups that had not submitted all the necessary documents. These two proposals were considered during the bid-evaluation stage, the ACC noted.
The commission also said that although the points system used to evaluate bids was published, the members of the bid-evaluation committee had taken freedoms and awarded higher points without following the published guidelines. The ACC stated that this could lead to biased results.
The official probe will also look into whether corruption was involved in the bid-evaluation process, the ACC said.
Saudi Arabia allocates the Maldives an annual visa quota of 1,000 for worshippers to travel to Mecca to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. Half of the quota is reserved for the state-owned Hajj Corporation, while the rest is awarded to private groups through a bidding process.
The Sisilfaru Hajj and Umrah Group, a company with 35 years of experience in offering pilgrimage tours, sued the Islamic ministry in May after its bid was rejected for the first time in five years. The ACC complaint was also lodged on behalf of Sisilfaru.
The evaluation and tendering process contravened public finance regulations, the company contended, accusing the ministry’s evaluation committee of using a separate “secret criteria”, instead of the one potential bidders were informed about.
The ministry has been accused of Hajj quota corruption on previous occasions.
In May 2019, before Sisilfaru sued the ministry, a risk assessment report by the ACC flagged corrupt practices in the awarding of Hajj quotas. Senior Islamic ministry officials were accused of helping companies prepare bid proposals and meddling in the evaluation process to give them an unfair advantage.
“Participants of the assessment informed that ministry officials were actively participating in pilgrimage tour operations, instead of acting as a responsible regulatory authority,” the report stated.
In 2017, the anti-corruption watchdog suspected that the evaluation committee had altered the criteria to favour certain bidders and ordered the ministry to re-evaluate the bids.