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Villa takes government to court over airport seizure

A civil court judge has granted a stay on the seizure of a domestic airport leased to Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim’s Villa Group.



A civil court judge has granted a stay on the seizure of a domestic airport leased to Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim’s Villa Group.

The judge ordered the tourism ministry to suspend the takeover until the court reaches a verdict on its abrupt termination of the 50-year lease agreement to manage the Kaadehdhoo airport in Gaaf Dhaal Atoll.

The termination may cause irreparable damages to the Villa Group, Judge Mohamed Haleem said.

The attorney general’s office has appealed the stay order at the high court.

The Villa Group declined to comment.

The company was handed the airport in November 2013.

The regional airports department cancelled the deal in January, claiming Villa was in breach of civil aviation rules and standards, but critics said the move was politically motivated.

The cancellation came after Gasim took President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s side in a feud with his half-brother and incumbent president, Abdulla Yameen.

Gasim’s Villa Group is one of the largest companies in the Maldives with the holding company Villa Shipping and Trading operating businesses in shipping, import and export, retail, tourism, fishing, media, communications, transport and education.

At the time of the evacuation notice, Gasim told newspaper Mihaaru that he had expressed his concern to Yameen via a text message.

“When the president clarifies what has happened, I do not think things will turn out bad. We have all the documents,” he said.

The government had not notified the company of the alleged violations, he said, adding that the civil aviation authority previously gave time to fix problems identified in audits and inspections.

“Even after their previous audit, we were given time to fix things. I think the only recommendation we have not implemented is bringing in a fire truck. That is not very serious. We have paid for the fire truck and are in the process of bringing it in,” he said.

The Villa Group was planning to invest some US$200million in the airport, he said.

The government, at the company’s request, has also downgraded its Maamigili airport in Alif Dhaal Atoll to domestic status.

Gasim told Mihaaru that it was forced to make the request because of increased taxes.

The government had seized Kaadehdhoo and downgraded Maamigili once before, when Gasim criticised Yameen’s policy on special economic zones.

Both decisions were reversed after the JP’s lawmakers voted in favour of the SEZ legislation.

The tourism tycoon also came under pressure in 2015 when the JP split with the government and allied with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party.

The JP is the third largest party in the country.

The opposition alliance prompted the tourism ministry’s seizure of five properties leased to Villa Shipping and Trading and other subsidiary companies for resort development.

The central bank subsequently froze the company’s bank accounts over US$90 million allegedly owed as unpaid rent and fines.

The crippling freeze was lifted after the two-time presidential candidate announced his retirement from politics and backed the government in several crucial votes, including a constitutional amendment that barred him from contesting in the 2018 presidential election.

The civil court later overturned the fine and the tourism ministry’s seizure of all of the Villa Group’s properties.