The public tuned in on Sunday to watch the first televised trial in Maldives history as former president Abdulla Yameen appeared in court for a hearing on money laundering charges.
The 60-year-old opposition leader is accused 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 Anti-Corruption Commission to hold the US$1 million in an escrow account by transferring the SOF money to an investment account at the Maldives Islamic Bank.
During Sunday’s hearing, Judge Ahmed Hailam dismissed five pre-trial motions filed by Yameen’s lawyers challenging the validity of the charges. None of the arguments made by the defence amounted to reasons not to proceed to trial, the criminal court’s chief judge ruled, declaring preliminary proceedings to be over.
The judge also refused to accept new witnesses the prosecution wanted to call despite not listing them in the charge sheet. They were SOF owner Mohamed Allam Latheef ‘Moho’ and Ahmed Ishfah Ali.
After the prosecution presented the charges as well as a list of witnesses and documentary evidence, Yameen’s lawyer filed a not guilty plea. The judge granted a five-day period for the defence to submit a list of witnesses.
The prosecution’s witnesses will testify at the next trial date on August 4, the judge announced.
Yameen was charged under the 2014 anti-money laundering law for allegedly benefiting from US$1 million worth of cheques from SOF with reasonable grounds to suspect that it was ill-gotten.
Defence lawyers argued 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, they argued.
But the prosecutor noted that Yameen was made aware when he was questioned by the anti-corruption watchdog about the scandal in February 2017.
Speaking during the hearing, Yameen said the US$1 million was owed to him by former vice president Ahmed Adeeb who had been managing campaign funds and donations until his arrest in October 2015.
“In October I asked Ahmed Adeeb to return my money. I believe that is what this money is. After depositing the money, he informed me of it,” he said.
Yameen claimed he only found out the cheques were from SOF when former ACC president Hassan Luthfy informed him during a phone call in 2016.
“From that moment, I requested him to investigate everything,” he said.
Yameen also categorically denied disobeying an ACC order to hand over the US$1 million. “I was never ordered by any state agency to do so [verbally or in writing],” he insisted.
Pressed by the judge, Yameen defended the decision not to transfer the SOF money to the escrow account. He previously admitted that the US$1 million deposited to the escrow account had been loaned by former tourism minister Moosa Zameer.
“Money is money. The state wanted one million dollars. That one million dollars is being kept as requested by the state under an agreement,” he said.
If found guilty, the former president could face a jail sentence between five to 15 years.
– Conflict of interest –
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 – had been siphoning off acquisition fees paid to lease islands for resort development.
Yameen’s former legal advisor at the president’s office, Azima Shukoor, is meanwhile on trial on separate charges of aiding money laundering and lying to the authorities.
At a pre-trial hearing last Thursday, Azima reportedly contended that Prosecutor General Aishath Bisham could not have raised the charges as she faced a conflict of interest in the case.
Prior to her appointment as the independent chief prosecutor, Bisham was Azima’s predecessor as Yameen’s legal affairs secretary. Bisham was in the post when the SOF transaction took place, Azima told the court, alleging culpability on her part.
But prosecutors dismissed the argument and noted that the charges were raised over the escrow account formed with the ACC when Azima was legal affairs minister.
Judge Hailam decided to proceed to trial and granted a 10-day period to file pre-trial motions.
The state’s witnesses against Azima include Yameen, former ACC president Luthfy and former vice president Adeeb.