Trial is due to begin Sunday in a lawsuit filed against the Islamic ministry over alleged unfair evaluation of bids for Hajj quotas.
The Maldives is allocated a visa quota of 1,000 every year for worshippers to travel to Mecca to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. Half of the quota is reserved for the state-owned Hajj Corporation while the rest is awarded to private groups through a bidding process.
The Sisilfaru Hajj and Umrah Group, a company with 35 years of experience in offering pilgrimage tours, sued the Islamic ministry last week after its bid was rejected for the first time in five years.
The evaluation and tendering process contravened public finance regulations, the company contended, accusing the ministry’s evaluation committee of using a separate “secret criteria” instead of the one potential bidders were informed about.
In particular, Sisilfaru took issue with scoring 0.7 percent out of five in the experience category, criticising the committee for not awarding “even a single percent for experience even though Sisilfaru has been taking care of pilgrim tours for 35 years.”
The group lost to the fifth-placed bidder by a difference of 0.88 percent, according to the evaluation report.
Sisilfaru lawyer Nazim Sattar told the Maldives Independent that the case is going to trial after failing to reach a settlement at a dispute resolution session on Thursday.
Agreements were signed with the selected five companies last Tuesday, a day after the lawsuit was filed.
Briefing the press, Deputy Islamic Minister Shafiu Ali defended the bidding process and it was conducted transparently. The criteria was awarding points was announced beforehand and followed during the evaluation process, he insisted.
– Corrupt bidding practices –
On Tuesday, the Anti-corruption Commission published a risk assessment report flagging corrupt practices in the awarding of Hajj quotas.
Senior Islamic ministry officials were accused of helping companies prepare bid proposals and meddling in the evaluation process to provide an unfair advantage.
“Participants of the assessment informed that ministry officials were actively participating in pilgrimage tour operations instead of acting as a responsible regulatory authority,” the report stated.
In 2017, the anti-corruption watchdog suspected that the evaluation committee altered the criteria to favour certain bidders and ordered the ministry to re-evaluate the bids.
The Saudi government allocates a strict annual quota of visas for each country. Although the quota is reported to be one spot for every 1,000 Muslims in a country, the kingdom makes exceptions based on diplomatic relations.
The Maldives is awarded a quota of 1,000 despite its 400,000-population since it is a “100 percent Muslim country and enjoys close diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.” During the past four years, the Maldives received an additional quota of 1,000 as “a special gift by the Saudi King.”
The ACC report identified problems in the way the quota is awarded to local Hajj companies.
A regulation was enacted in 2013 to strengthen the system but the criteria has been revised and republished each year.
In 2015, the regulation was amended to allow the government to reserve slots from the quotas awarded to the Hajj Corporation. Since then, the number of reserved slots has increased every year, the anti-corruption assessment found.
Of the 1,000 quota awarded to the Hajj Corporation in 2016, 400 was reserved by the government.
Officials told the ACC that the reserved slots were given to “the elderly, people with terminal illnesses, senior state officials and people scammed by private Hajj operators.”
But leaving the awarding of the reserved slots to the Islamic ministry’s discretion without a predetermined policy paves the way to corruption, the ACC report warned.
In 2017, rules were changed again to give Islamic minister authority to decide how much of the quota would be awarded to the Hajj Corporation instead of the minimum 50 percent in previous years.
The report also flagged the practice of private companies continuing to charge more than the quoted price without facing any action from the authorities.
Pilgrims pay additional charges over fear of being unable to travel and do not get a receipt, the report noted, making it harder to prove financial misconduct and prosecute offenders.
“These charges taken under different names are levied without providing a receipt and those who do not pay cannot make the pilgrimage. While this continues to happen and become a culture, authorities do not care and do not try to solve this,” the report said.
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.