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Sunday roundup: tree replantation and unauthorised tourism

A roundup of the day’s top stories.



More plants replanted than uprooted, says EPA

The number of trees planted in 2019 is three times more than the number of trees removed with permits during the year, the Environment Protection Agency said on Sunday.

Some 8,602 trees were planted on five islands and 2,706 trees were removed from 21 islands.

The EPA posted a list of islands for which permits were issued this year along with islands reported to have replanted in 2019. “We are following up with all parties who have not replanted as per the given permits,” the agency tweeted.

Permits were also granted to remove about 90 coconut palms from Thaa Madifushi and Gaaf Dhaal Vaadhoo to be replanted elsewhere on the islands.

The EPA has been under fire for authorising the mass removal of trees, an increasingly common practice that environmental activists have dubbed #MvTreeGrab. Thousands of mature coconut palms and other trees have been removed from natural islands all over the country to landscape reclaimed islands being developed as luxury tourist resorts.

According to regulations, a permit must be obtained from the EPA before removing more than 10 trees. An assessment has to be done for the removal of more than 200 trees. The rules also require two trees to be replanted for every tree uprooted and transported to another island. But in 2014, an amendment was made to allow cabinet to approve clearance of trees for “development projects.” For every tree uprooted under such a project, six trees were required to be replanted.

The EPA sought public opinion last May to amend the rules on tree removal. But the revised rules have yet to be enacted.

Secret hearings requested for marital rape appeal

The Prosecutor General’s office has asked the High Court to conduct closed-door hearings in the state’s appeal of the acquittal of a man who was charged over the death of his wife in December 2015.

Ziyadha Naeem, 37, from the Thinadhoo island in Gaaf Dhaal atoll died of life-threatening injuries caused by the alleged marital rape. A postmortem examination conducted in India found signs of abuse. After a secret trial, her husband Ibrahim Shah was found not guilty in March of marital rape, manslaughter, negligent homicide and possession of pornography.

Court hearings involving rape are required by law to be closed to the public and media, the PG office noted in a statement issued on Sunday morning. The criminal court trial was also conducted behind closed doors in order to protect witnesses as well as the privacy of the victim and her children, it added.

The appeal hearings began on Sunday and the High Court granted the request to conduct proceedings in secret. But judges ruled that the appeal on the possession of pornography charge will be conducted openly, according to media reports.

Illegal tourism operation stopped on Fushidhigga

The tourism ministry asked police to investigate an illegal tourism operation on Fushidhigga in Alif Dhaal atoll while a legal dispute over the island’s ownership was ongoing at court.

A team of tourism ministry officials and police officers went to the island on Saturday. Briefing the press on Saturday night, Tourism Minister Ali Waheed said the island was now under police control.

The team found two migrant workers without a valid work permit, he noted. There was a generator on the island but it was only used to provide electricity for tourists. The two Bangladeshi workers used kerosene lamps at night, he said.

A proposal to develop a resort on the island under a corporate social responsibility project was made in 2011 by an individual identified as Ahmed Khaleel from the Maafanu Hasthee house in the capital Malé. But an official agreement was never signed, the tourism minister explained. When Khaleel sued the government, the civil court ruled in his favour but the judgment was overturned by the High Court and the Supreme Court upheld the decision.

Khaleel does not have a license to operate a tourist establishment on the island, the minister stressed.

During former president Abdulla Yameen’s administration, Fushidhigga was leased to two companies through the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation, a state-owned company at the heart of the country’s biggest corruption scandal.

Both companies paid acquisition fees to lease the island, the tourism minister said. “Who deserves the island has not yet been decided. We will study it and look into it with the Attorney General’s office and state institutions,” he added.

Meeting the press again on Sunday morning, Ali Waheed said the ministry has decided to inspect 115 islands under development as resorts before November 17. Work has stalled on 70 islands, he revealed, adding that decisions would be made concerning the leases. Of the 70 islands on the “distress list,” the government has decided to terminate the lease agreement for two islands, he said.

The minister urged the public to report unauthorised use of islands leased for tourism to the hotline numbers 9423131 and 7223131.

Death threat made against police chief

Death threats made against Commissioner of Police Mohamed Hameed are under investigation, police told the media on Saturday.

Hameed has been under fire over his association with NGO Maldivian Democracy Network, whose 2016 report on radicalisation caused outrage over the alleged slander of Islam and prompted a criminal investigation and suspension of the group.

A video of Hameed representing MDN at a panel discussion on extremism was widely shared on social media during the weekend. In the face of the criticism over an alleged conflict of interest, police said Hameed had only worked for the MDN for a brief period and that he was not involved in the criminal probe of the NGO.

A campaign launched by local clerics to ban MDN meanwhile continued with protest marches on several islands over the weekend. A video of protesters on one island calling for the burning of secularists and the murder of MDN executive director Shahindha Ismail has been circulating on social media.

A police media official told the press on Saturday that senior MDN officials have been summoned for questioning. On Sunday afternoon, police announced a summons for Dr Azra Naseem, one of the contributors to the report, after failing to deliver a summons chit. Her family said her whereabouts was unknown, police said.

She was told to appear at the police headquarters in Malé at 1:30pm on November 5. Dr Naseem works as a research fellow at Dublin City University in Ireland.