The Anti-Corruption Commission has ordered the Islamic ministry to halt the process of awarding Hajj quotas to five companies that submitted winning bids for taking Maldivian pilgrims to Mecca.
In a statement issued Monday morning, the watchdog also urged the public not to make any payments to the private Hajj groups as formal agreements have yet to be signed.
The ministry was instructed “not to proceed with any work related to Hajj quotas” pending the conclusion of an ongoing corruption probe.
The move comes after an audio clip of a senior Islamic ministry official was leaked to the media. A man alleged to be a political appointee at the Islamic ministry is heard saying that he will cancel the previous bids and restart the process.
“Why bid, then?” a second unidentified man asks and the official replies, “Bidding will go on, last time it was 10 right? It will be sold for 20 this time.”
He then claims to have set up new Hajj groups and informs the second man that an MVR500,000 (US$32,425) will be required as a deposit to submit bid proposals.
The ACC reportedly launched the investigation after a member of the public filed a complaint.
Mohamed Ahusan, the Islamic ministry’s spokesman, declined to comment on the corruption allegation but assured full cooperation for the ACC’s probe.
“As of now, we have halted everything concerning the awarding of bids, as instructed by the commission,” he said.
“Staff from the commission made an investigative visit to the ministry [Sunday], checking and reviewing documents related to the bidding process and the bid evaluation committees work.”
Five out of sixteen companies who submitted bids were granted licenses by the Islamic ministry this year. They were Sisilfaru Hajj and Umra group, Zaee Hajj group, Dharuma-lil- Hajj, Haramain and Kiswa group.
Of the 1,000 quota provided to the Maldives by Saudi Arabia, 500 is reserved for the state-owned Hajj Corporation and the rest is awarded to private Hajj groups.
This year’s Hajj pilgrimage is expected to begin on August 30. Performing the pilgrimage at least once is obligatory upon all able Muslims.
The ACC also halted the bidding process for selecting Hajj groups in 2014. The commission at the time instructed the Islamic ministry to revise the criteria for awarding quotas.
The bidding process for Hajj groups was marred by controversy in 2013 as well. In May that year, the high court overturned a civil court ruling that ordered the Islamic ministry to reevaluate several unsuccessful bids from Hajj groups.