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Wednesday roundup: human trafficking, MMPRC corruption and Addu power project

A roundup of the day’s top stories.



MDP MP alleges obstruction of corruption probe

Lawmakers on Wednesday debated a motion calling on the authorities to expose the beneficiaries of more than US$90 million looted from the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation during the previous administration.

The motion without notice – which opens the floor for an impromptu debate – was submitted by MP Hassan Latheef from the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party after Prosecutor General Aishath Bisham told the public accounts committee on Monday that the beneficiaries include sitting judges, lawmakers and ministers.

Officials within the police and Anti-Corruption Commission have been trying to obstruct and misdirect the ongoing investigation, MDP MP Ilyas Labeeb alleged during the debate, as Majority Leader Ali Azim called on implicated ministers to resign and other MDP MPs criticised the delays in bringing those involved in the embezzlement scheme to justice.

Opposition lawmakers said the list of beneficiaries would include MDP members and accused the majority party of trying to divert public attention from the controversy over an NGO report alleged to have slandered Islam. MP Ahmed Shiyam accused MDP MPs of accepting bribes from former vice president Ahmed Adeeb to vote for government bills during the previous administration.

Chinese company awarded 20MW Addu City power project

The economic development ministry on Wednesday signed a framework agreement with China’s Dongfang Electric International Corporation for a 20 megawatt power generation and distribution project in Addu City.

A modern powerhouse built under the project is to be managed by the state utility Fenaka Corporation.

“Addu will be connected through a fibre optic cable when the powerhouse is complete,” Fenaka managing director Ahmed Saeed told the press after the signing ceremony. “When the whole project is completed there will be capacity to generate 36 megawatts of electricity. We will also carry out a 10 megawatt solar project. Changing electricity in the whole of Addu to 70 percent renewable energy is an aim,”

The US$37.5 million 15-month project with financing to be secured by the contractor was awarded without a bidding process. The previous administration revised public finance rules in 2015 to allow large-scale projects to be awarded without a competitive bidding process or approval from the tender evaluation board.

Briefing the press, Economic Development Minister Fayyaz Ismail said the government has received more than 130 proposals to carry out infrastructure projects without bidding, of which negotiations are ongoing for 20 projects.

Human trafficker arrested with victims bound for Maldives

Undocumented workers queuing up for regularisation programme

Indian police arrested a suspected Nepali human trafficker and rescued nine young Nepalis who were due to be sent to the Maldives.

The 40-year-old Nepali suspect, Shambhu Babugiri, had taken more than US$4,000 from each of the victims by promising them jobs in five-star resorts, Indian told the media on Tuesday.

“The police said Babugiri, through his associate R.P. Sharma, used to take the candidates to Maldives and hand them over to his contacts, who would confiscate their travel documents and force them to do menial jobs without pay,” The Hindu reported.

“The racket was busted when a group of youths who went to the Maldives recently was caught by the Immigration officials and sent back to Bengaluru.”

Sharma, the alleged kingpin in charge of the human trafficking racket, resides in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He is suspected of operating a network in New Delhi and Bengaluru.”A special team has been formed to nab Sharma,” a police officer told the media. The Nepali suspect was sending victims as tourists to stay in hotels until fake work permits are provided to show Maldivian authorities.

According to an annual human trafficking report by the United States, many workers from South Asian countries are brought in by recruitment agents with the promise of resort jobs only to be left to fend for themselves after their passports are confiscated. Foreign workers are subjected to “practices indicative of forced labour, including fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, and debt bondage.”

Last year, the Maldives was downgraded on a US watchlist for human trafficking over the failure to meet minimum standards for elimination.

Asian human rights groups call for lifting of MDN suspension

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development and 36 civil society organisations from Asian countries have called on the government to lift the suspension of NGO Maldivian Democracy Network and “allow the organisation and its staff to continue their legitimate work to promote and protect human rights without fear of reprisal, intimidation and harassment.”

The group’s suspension over content “slandering Islam” in a 2016 report on radicalisation came in the wake of a campaign launched by local clerics after screenshots of offensive sections in the report were widely shared on social media. Protest marches took place on several islands over the weekend and at least 78 local councils have put out statements condemning the report and backing the calls to ban MDN.

In a joint statement, the Asian human rights groups expressed concern with harassment of MDN staff and associates “in the form of death threats and incitement to hatred and violence.”

The NGOs contended that the suspension without due process “constitutes a serious violation of the right to freedom of association guaranteed under the Constitution and international treaties that the Maldives has ratified,” and warned that it “sets a dangerous and regressive precedent that threatens to undo the limited progress towards the meaningful restoration of democracy and respect for fundamental freedoms the country has committed itself to.”

The statement criticised the current administration for failure to protect human rights defenders in the face of threats from religious extremists.

“We call on the Government to respect its commitment to uphold all fundamental rights and freedoms, in particular the rights to the freedom of association and expression, and to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders from all forms of attacks, harassment and intimidation, in line with its international obligations. The Government must urgently investigate and hold accountable those responsible for threats and incitement against MDN and its staff, as well as other human rights defenders.”

President seeks Japanese investment

During his ongoing official visit to Japan, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih met with the president of Yamaki Co Ltd on Wednesday to discuss opportunities for investing in the Maldives fisheries sector.

Yamaki Co, which manufactures and sells seasonings, dry seafood, and processed seafood, owns a subsidiary based in the Maldives called Yours Maldivian Addu Katsuobushi Pvt Ltd, which represents Japan’s most significant foreign direct investment in the country, according to the president’s office.

“The factory in Hithadhoo Ward of Addu City annually produces about 200 tonnes of skipjack tuna worth ‘Katsuobushi’—dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna—which amounts to approximately US$200 million in revenue, adds value to the fisheries sector and contributes to the employment sector,” the president’s office.

“At the meeting, President Solih and officials of the company discussed ways to expand Yamaki’s investment in the Maldives further. President Solih also thanked Yoshihiro for the company’s long-term commitment to producing Katsuobushi from skipjack tuna acquired in the Maldives.”

The president also met with Kokyo Tatemono Company Ltd CEO Kohei Yamashita and Professor Tsumoru Shintake from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University to discuss promoting renewable energy in the Maldives.

“Discussions at the meeting focused on expanding the pilot project to harness electricity from surf waves jointly carried out by Kokyo, OIST and the Maldives’ Ministry of Environment. The innovative technology is currently being tested in Holiday Inn Resort Kandooma Maldives,” the president’s office said.

The professor invited Maldivian postgraduate and doctoral students to conduct research at the university. President Solih thanked Professor Shintake and assured support for the pilot project in Kandooma.

Also on Wednesday, President Solih met the president of Japan International Cooperation Agency as well as members of the Japan-Maldives Parliamentarians Friendship League at a breakfast hosted by Japanese lawmakers at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

Discussions with JICA President Shinichi Kitaoka focused on “the project on ‘Building Climate Resilient Safer Islands in the Maldives’ and the installation of the new Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting (ISDB-T) system to allow for more efficient disaster prevention and e-learning, especially within the outer islands of the Maldives.”