President Abdulla Yameen has been accused of cracking down on businesses of lawmakers who have sided with his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the civil war roiling the ruling party.
The first to come under pressure was Gasim Ibrahim, the leader of the Jumhooree Party, who had publicly backed the 78-year-old former president, and supported his decision to withdraw support from Yameen’s administration.
Days later, on November 2, the high court scheduled hearings in an appeal lodged by the tourism ministry, which seeks to seize at least three properties leased to Gasim’s Villa Group for tourism.
A state-owned company is meanwhile making moves to seize a plot of land leased to MP Ahmed ‘Red Wave’ Saleem for a café in Hulhumalé, while the health ministry has cancelled a contract awarded to a company owned by MP Saudhullah Hilmy to build a health centre in a northern island.
The two MPs of the Progressive Party of the Maldives were among eight lawmakers who had announced a breakaway faction of the ruling coalition in the parliament.
Critics claim the measures are aimed at harassing and intimidating MPs. “I dreamt of an arrest warrant against a dissenting MP. The [governmentt] does nothing but run after us,” MP Mohamed Musthafa, a Gayoom supporter, said in a tweet last week.
At least two PPM MPs who sided with Gayoom have now retracted their support.
MP Abdul Latheef Mohamed, who was part of the breakaway faction, reversed his decision immediately, telling pro-government Channel 13 that there was no way that he would leave Yameen’s side.“We will let President Yameen lead us, there is no reason to back another leader,” he said on October 29.
MP Yameen Rasheed, who had appeared at Gayoom’s side on the day a court put the president in charge of PPM and stripped Gayoom of his powers as elected leader of the party, told Vnews that he was “with the true PPM, that is President Yameen’s faction.” He was not part of the break away group.
Ibrahim Muaz Ali, the president’s spokesman, denied allegations that the president had ordered the crackdown on Gasim, Saleem and Saudhullah’s businesses. “This government abides by the laws and regulations of the Maldives. I will not comment on a particular case,” he said.
Yameen has weathered multiple crises, including attempts at his ouster, bolstered by strong support for him in the parliament. The ruling coalition which includes the Maldives Development Alliance had 54 seats in the 85-member house before Gayoom faction broke off.
The former president’s faction, which now has seven MPs, along with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, the Jumhooree Party and the Adhaalath Party, are seeking to oust Speaker Abdulla Maseeh and remove Yameen loyalist, MP Ibrahim Riza, from the judicial watchdog.
The opposition bloc appears to command the support of 37 MPs, six short of a simple majority.
Gayoom has meanwhile vowed to protect Gasim and his employees while former President Mohamed Nasheed of the MDP has accused Yameen of using the courts to target Gasim.
Gasim’s businesses have periodically come under pressure because of his political stand. In 2014, when he spoke out against the government’s flagship special economic zone law, the Maamigili International Airport, run by the Villa Group, was downgraded to a domestic airport. The airport regained international status when his party reversed its stand on the SEZ bill.
In 2015, Gasim split from the PPM and joined the MDP in an anti-government campaign, prompting the seizure of five properties – two lagoons and three islands – from the Villa Group. The tax authority also slapped the company with a fine of US$90.4million.
The central bank went on to freeze Villa’s bank accounts; they were only released when the Jumhooree Party supported the government in several crucial votes in parliament.
Gasim abandoned the opposition in May that year and spent months away from the Maldives. On his return, he announced his support for Yameen, and the civil court later overturned the fine and tourism ministry’s seizure of all of Villa’s properties.
The five are the Bolidhuhfaru and Vaavehdhifaru lagoons in Kaafu Atoll and the island of Elaa in Thaa Atoll, Gazeera in Gaaf Dhaalu Atoll and Maanehfushi in Raa Atoll. The on going appeals at the high court concern the two lagoons and the island of Elaa; hearings in the Gazeera and Maanehfushi case have not been scheduled yet.
The tourism ministry had lodged the appeals in January, but hearings were only scheduled this month. Ibrahim Rasheed, the Villa Group’s company secretary, said he does not see “anything out of the ordinary” in the timing. He added: “The High Court has a lot of appeals to review, and sometimes scheduling takes time.”
But MP Abdulla Riyaz, who was recently appointed deputy leader of the Jumhooree Party, called the appeals politically motivated.
“The Jumhoree Party is now in opposition to the government. The timing makes it very clear that these cases are politically motivated, targets our leader Gasim and is aimed at limiting political space for the party,” he said.
Gayoom on Thursday expressed confidence in Gasim, saying he believed “Gasim cannot be weakened.” He said: “We give our word to Gasim’s 5,000 employees and their families that we will remain with Gasim and Jumhooree Party. We will not let anything affect his business interests.”
Nasheed also spoke in Gasim’s defence, and called for courage. “President Yameen is using the Maldivian courts to hinder Gasim’s business interests because of his political ideology. Gain courage from each other,” he said in a tweet.
Meanwhile, on Friday, the civil aviation department inspected the Kaadedhoo Airport in Gaaf Dhaalu Atoll, managed by Villa, for quality of service. Officials called the visit a routine inspection.
Riyaz, the JP’s deputy leader, described the apparent crackdown as “uncivilised” and said the “same thing is happening to Saleem and other MPs.”
Saleem, who owns the Red Wave chain of grocery stores, was warned by the Housing Development Corporation that it would seize a plot leased for a café in Hulhumalé if the company fails to open a café there by November 9.
“We have been regularly paying rent. There are no accrued fees. They are just trying to seize the space without a reason,” he told newspaper Mihaaru.
The plot was leased for 15 years for a reported monthly rent of MVR230,000 (US$14,915). Red Wave was fined on October 10, for failing to open the café in the agreed period and given a one-month extension. The company asked for a three-month extension, but was given two months. This period is set to expire on December 13.
Saudullah’s Swift Engineering was meanwhile told to stop work on a MVR10.4million (US$674,448) construction project on the island of Hinnavaru in Lhaviyani Atoll. The contract for a health centre was awarded on October 1.
“I have no idea why they want the project stopped. I am not going to say that it has anything to do with politics,” Saudhulla said, and added: “I am not interested in finding out why it was stopped.
There are other contracts that Swift has with the government. But we have not been asked to stop any other projects.”
Riyaz said that he expects a further crackdown on the businesses of lawmakers: “What this government may do or not do is up to anyone’s imagination. When it comes to being cruel and tyrannical, I don’t think there is anything this government will not do.”