Former president Abdulla Yameen pleaded not guilty to money laundering charges at a pre-trial hearing Thursday, as the prosecution submitted a list of witnesses that include his former right-hand men.
The prosecution plans to call jailed former vice president Ahmed Adeeb, former tourism minister Moosa Zameer, and top members of the anti-corruption watchdog to testify against Yameen.
The 59-year-old opposition leader is accused of laundering US$1 million deposited to his personal account by SOF, a local company that was used to funnel the bulk of US$90 million stolen from the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation.
The MMPRC’s convicted former boss Abdulla Ziyath – who was transferred to house arrest in February – is among the state’s witnesses along with board members of the Bank of Maldives.
Yameen was charged under the 2014 anti-money laundering law for “concealing or disguising the true nature, source, location, transferee, movement or ownership of or rights” of the US$1 million from SOF with reasonable grounds to suspect that it was ill-gotten.
If found guilty, the former president could face a jail sentence of up to 15 years along with a fine of MVR100,000 (US$6,485) to MVR1 million, or an amount not exceeding five times the sum of laundered funds (maximum US$5 million).
Appearing in court for the first time since the High Court ordered his release last month, Yameen called the charges unclear.
In the ensuing exchanges, junior prosecutor Mohamed Alim appeared unprepared and struggled to clarify details of the charges when pressed by defence lawyers.
The prosecutor was unsure which definition of anti-money laundering had been cited from the law to raise the charge.
When he asked for more time to clarify the specific type of corruption, Judge Ahmed Hailam handed the prosecutor a copy of the penal code.
Yameen meanwhile continued to challenge the validity of the charges on the grounds that the source of the money from SOF had not been established. It has yet to be concluded by an investigative agency or proven at court that the money was embezzled from the MMPRC, he argued.
Prosecutor Alim told the court that upon receiving the US$1 million Yameen had transferred it to another account at the Maldives Islamic Bank.
A separate US$1 million lent by Moosa Zameer was transferred to an escrow account at the request of the Anti-Corruption Commission.
The escrow agreement was among documentary evidence submitted by the prosecution along with Yameen’s statement to the ACC and audit and investigation reports of the MMPRC corruption scandal.
The judge granted a request to seal bank statements but allowed the defence to see cheques and slips.
The prosecution also sought to submit two additional statements obtained after charges were pressed. The statements had not taken before because police could not find the witnesses, the prosecutor said.
Judge Hailam concluded the hearing after granting a 10-day period to file pre-trial motions.
– Campaign finance –
Yameen previously denied any involvement in the MMPRC scandal and claimed he was unaware that tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb – who was later elevated to the vice presidency – was siphoning off acquisition fees paid to lease islands for resort development.
After he was summoned for questioning in early January, Yameen defended an agreement made in March last year to create an escrow account with the ACC, admitting to having transferred the SOF money and later obtaining a US$1 million cheque from former tourism minister Moosa Zameer.
There should be no problem “as one million for one million was deposited to the escrow account,” he insisted. Zameer was paid in local currency to buy the dollars, which was “very clean money.”
The US$1 million had been owed to him by former vice president Adeeb before he was arrested on charges of orchestrating an assassination attempt, Yameen said.
The former right-hand man is serving 33 years in prison for terrorism and corruption charges stemming from the MMPRC scandal.
Adeeb had managed campaign funds and donations until his arrest in the wake of the September 2015 explosion on the presidential speedboat, Yameen said.
As police launched a probe into campaign contributions weeks after he left office last year, Yameen’s bank accounts were frozen with more than MVR100 million (US$6.5 million) in US dollars and local currency.
Al Jazeera reported that police had been alerted by the central bank’s anti-money laundering watchdog to US$1.5 million deposited into Yameen’s private account, ten days before the September 23 election.
The High Court lifted the freeze last month.