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On 18 February 2016 Gasim Abdul Kareem, Manager at Bank of Maldives Nilandhoo Branch, was arrested by Maldives Police Service for leaking detailed bank statements of a private company, SOF Pvt. Ltd., that is in the midst of one of the biggest cases of grand corruption, money laundering, embezzlement and abuse of power the country has ever seen.

The leaked documents revealed how SOF bank accounts were used to siphon off millions of dollars embezzled from Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Company (MMPRC) – a state company set up to promote Maldives as a tourism destination.

The issue was first flagged in an audit report published in 2014 by the then Auditor General, Niyaz Ibrahim. The report revealed that a staggering USD 6 million had been embezzled from MMPRC by the then Tourism Minister, Ahmed Adeeb, and the Managing Director of the Company, Abdulla Ziyath. In his report, Niyaz recommended a thorough investigation to hold those responsible to account.

His report was ignored by investigative authorities and instead he was summarily dismissed from his position as the Auditor General, by a government majority controlled parliament. It appeared that the government had been successful in quashing any further inquiry into MMPRC corruption.

Ironically, the issue was dug up by the government following an explosion on the presidential speedboat, for which Adeeb, by then the Vice President of Maldives, was named the primary suspect. Adeeb and Ziyath were promptly arrested. Following the incident, President Yameen addressed the nation and narrated a story of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power orchestrated by his former right-hand man, Adeeb.

This finally forced investigative authorities, including the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), into action. The new Auditor General published a second audit report stating that over USD 79.37 million had been embezzled from the state coffers. The ACC launched its own investigation, which is still ongoing.

Who is Gasim? What did he do?

Four years ago Gasim Abdul Kareem, a native of Naifaru and a father of three, was hired by Bank of Maldives to manage their branch in Rasdhoo. Since then he has also worked as the manager in Kulhudhuffushi branch and more recently, in the Nilandhoo branch where he discovered questionable financial transactions made by SOF Pvt. Ltd.

Instead of taking his discovery to the seniors at the bank or reporting to relevant state authorities, Gasim chose to email the documents to some 500 bank staff and a further 99 people – for which he was sacked, arrested, and eventually charged with unauthorised disclosure of private information.

Since his arrest on 18 February 2016, there have been many opinions about Gasim, his motives and interests. The state considers him a criminal. Others view him as a whistleblower who exposed corruption involving powerful people, for which he is being unfairly targeted and persecuted by the state. For the most part, his case has been ignored by a desensitised public driven to exhaustion by the continuous targeting of individuals even slightly critical of the state.

Whistleblower or criminal?

The state wants Gasim to be seen not as a whistleblower but as someone who violated privacy by revealing confidential information. But does that argument really hold water?

A whistleblower is someone who exposes a wrongdoing—for example, corruption or money laundering—at work, and does so in the interest of the public and not for any personal benefit. According to Article 232(b) of the Penal Code, any good faith disclosure of private information for the purpose of exposing a wrongdoing is not an offence.

Gasim, by exposing a clear case of corruption, gained no monetary benefit nor was he expecting to acquire political or institutional power and therefore acted in good faith. This makes Gasim a whistleblower and the state has a responsibility to ensure his protection.

However, the state has decided to prosecute Gasim as a criminal, under Article 232 (Unlawful Acquisition of Information) and Section 233 (Unlawful Disclosure of Information) of the Penal Code. The reason for this becomes clear when we look at what has been revealed so far about the MMPRC scandal.

The latest audit report states that a total of USD 79.37 million was embezzled through MMPRC, and of this, USD 70.17 million was deposited into the bank account of SOF Pvt. Ltd. Mohamed Allam Latheef ‘Moho’, owner of SOF Pvt. Ltd, later said the money was distributed to the first couple, the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives, and other senior politicians.

Analysis of bank statements leaked by Gasim show that large amounts of money, in some cases, ranging from USD 10,000 to 500,000 was credited to various private accounts in different banks in the Maldives. One such account was reportedly that of President Yameen at Maldives Islamic Bank.

The audit report stated that embezzled money was deposited into SOF accounts but stopped short of stating where this money was routed to through these accounts. Gasim filled in those essential gaps through his disclosures.

One point that the state has been eager to emphasise is that Gasim did not share the information to competent state authorities: why did Gasim go straight to the public instead of reporting to the police, Anti-Corruption-Commission, or the judiciary, if he was so concerned about corruption and money laundering?

Making even a cursory effort to understand Gasim’s actions through his perspective reveals a dilemma. He had witnessed the state’s pattern of response towards individuals who dared to associate them with corruption. Consider how the former Auditor General was removed from office for bringing this issue to the spotlight in 2014. It was clear that the systems put in place to stop corruption was not working.

Consider also how the arrest and subsequent investigation of the then Vice President Ahmed Adeeb revealed the compromised nature of all key watchdog state institutions. One cannot be blamed if Gasim had little faith in law enforcement agencies, as it was the President who stated that law enforcement agencies were corrupted and that Adeeb routinely bought influence from the police.

As for the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Chair of the Commission just a few short months back accepted a luxury flat gifted to him by the President’s Economic Council, which is co-chaired by the President and the then Vice President, Adeeb.

Therefore, it is not all that surprising that Gasim chose to bypass state institutions and go straight to the public.

Drop the case

Gasim should be praised and protected, not punished, for taking action against corruption. The public have a right to know when public funds are being embezzled to enrich a powerful few that always seem to be above the law.

To prosecute Gasim sends the message that protecting the privacy of individuals who engage in corruption on a grand scale is more important than protecting whistleblowers who expose their corruption.

The state must drop the case against Gasim Abdul Kareem.

#DropTheCase


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For updates on Gasim’s case please visit: http://dropthecase.transparencymaldives.org/

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PRESS RELEASE – September 04, 2016

Gasim Abdul Kareem, a former manager at the Bank of Maldives, is being prosecuted for disclosing customer information that revealed details related to a multi-million dollar corruption scandal in the Maldives, where money that should have gone to the state was allegedly siphoned off into private accounts.

Transparency International and Transparency Maldives are calling on the Prosecutor General to dismiss the case because the information disclosed is not only in the public interest, but such disclosures are protected under the Maldives Banking Act.

“Kareem is a man who has taken action against what he believed to be a corrupt practice. This behaviour should be praised not punished. If money that should be used to benefit the people of the Maldives – to fund public services, for example –  is being siphoned off to fund the luxury lifestyle of the corrupt, the people have a right to know,” said Cobus de Swardt, managing director of Transparency International. “The prosecutor general should dismiss this case. Kareem’s actions deserve admiration and he is entitled to protection, not prosecution.”

“This is a test case for the Maldives and its whistleblower protection laws. The questionable financial transactions revealed from Kareem’s actions should have raised alarm bells a long time ago and yet no one had the courage to do what Kareem did. Instead of encouraging whistleblowing, Kareem’s persecution simply sends a signal to others who witness corruption that speaking out has severe consequences,” said Mariyam Shiuna, Executive Director of Transparency Maldives.

Under Section 44 of the Maldives Banking Act “actions taken in good faith in the course of the implementation of measure for the prevention of corruption and countering money laundering and financing of terrorism pursuant to laws or regulations dealing with such matters” cannot be considered unlawful.

Kareem was arrested on 18 February. He was held without a charge for over 4 months, and his detention extended 14 times until 30 June 2016 when he was released under house arrest.

The case is linked to a complex multi-million dollar grand corruption scandal that has involved the selling and leasing of islands and lagoons for tourism and is linked to former and current public officials.

On 1 September the president of the New York City Bar John S. Kiernan wrote to the prosecutor general on Kareem’s behalf pointing out the protections that whistleblowers are entitled to protection under law in the Maldives.

ENDS

View/download the press release in English.

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PRESS RELEASE – August 09, 2016

Transparency Maldives (TM) strongly condemns the passing of the Anti Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act without addressing the serious concerns raised and amendments suggested by media organisations, Maldives Media Council, journalists, political parties, civil society organisations, and international actors. The new provisions that were included in the Act were not opened for public review and restricts freedom of expression even further.

The new Anti Defamation Act now compels journalists to reveal their sources to prove the veracity of their published articles, news reports or comments. Article 18(c) of the Act clearly contravenes Article 28 of the Constitution that offers complete protection to journalists from having to reveal their sources under any circumstance. TM notes that the Constitution proactively refrains from including any enabling provisions which may curtail that right.

Article 33(a) of the Act allows for media licenses to be cancelled in addition to the criminal liability faced by specific journalists. Similarly, Article 36 gives way to disrupt the functioning of any particular media during a live event and compels the determination of the broadcast content by almost anyone. TM believes these provisions greatly hinder the functioning of an independent media devoid of intimidation and fear as guaranteed by Article 28 of the Constitution.

Furthermore, while people should be protected from false and harmful accusations, the Act is less about providing redress for victims of defamation. Defamation laws should also be free from manipulation by public authorities and officials, and it should not act as a means to curtail any provisions of the rights prescribed in the Constitution and the International Bill of Rights.

TM calls on the President of the Maldives to consider concerns raised by various actors before ratifying this Act. TM also call on the public to persevere in their fight for freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 27 of the Constitution. Freedom of expression, like all human rights, is not one that is given but rather one that cannot be taken away.

ENDS

View/download the press statement in English and Dhivehi

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PRESS RELEASE – August 02, 2016

Transparency Maldives (TM) calls on the Parliament of the Maldives to immediately reconsider the proposed bill criminalising defamation. At a time when fundamental civil and political liberties are under stringent restrictions of the State, the proposed defamation bill will be a further step back for press freedom and freedom of speech in the Maldives.

While recognising that a defamation law is required to protect people’s reputation, defamation must not be treated as a criminal matter but as a civil matter. Criminalising defamation will restrict freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 27 of the Constitution of Maldives.

Similarly, UN Human Rights committee, (UNHRCm), considers the criminalisation of libel to be a violation of freedom of expression and to be inconsistent with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Following concerns raised by journalists, civil society organizations, political parties and international actors on the initial draft, there was a glimmer of hope that this bill would be substantially revised in line with the Constitution of the Maldives and international best practice. Instead, a revised defamation bill has been tabled which does not address the concerns raised by journalists and human rights advocates in the country. Similarly, concerns raised by the Maldives Media Council were also disregarded.

Anyone convicted under the proposed Law could be fined between MVR 50,000 to MVR 2 million and if unable to pay the fine, face a jail term of 3 to 6 months.

While many democratic countries do have defamation laws, it is important to note that such countries also have mechanisms and conditions set to promote and protect free speech. However, in the Maldives free speech is in decline and the State has consistently failed to protect freedom of speech.

This bill is yet another attempt to stifle freedom of expression and dissenting voice in the Maldives. This proposed law will severely restrict media freedoms and the people’s ability to hold the Government to account.

Transparency Maldives calls on the Parliament to reconsider criminalising defamation and substantially review the proposed law so that it is in line with accepted international standards and the Constitution of the Maldives.

ENDS

View/download the press release in English and Dhivehi.

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PRESS RELEASE – June 30, 2016

Transparency Maldives (TM) notes with concern the increasing intimidation and challenges faced by watchdog bodies, activists and media outlets reporting on corruption in the Maldives. Bypassing principles of transparency and accountability with complete impunity is becoming a common trend in the Maldives with changes made in legal mechanisms to facilitate corruption.

The recent amendment made to the Tourism Act to lease islands without a competitive bidding process contravenes principles of transparency and accountability. Instead of addressing the issues identified in the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) corruption scandal, where islands were given away for resort development, allegedly through corrupt deals, this new amendment builds on past corrupt practices and seeks to legalise similar corrupt behavior. In submitting and passing this amendment the Government of Maldives and the People’s Majlis has blatantly disregarded public concerns as well as concerns raised by the ACC over the lack of transparency, accountability and integrity in the leasing of islands for resort development. It appears that the Government has not learned any lessons from the MMPRC corruption scandal where an estimated USD 72 million of state fund was lost, and plans to continue on the same track and engage in legalised corruption. TM reminds the Government to honour its obligations under UN Convention Against Corruption and ensure transparency, competition and objective criteria in decision-making on public matters and resources.

TM condemns the continued persecution of anti-corruption actors in the Maldives, including media outlets and anti-corruption activists. The most recent example is the closing down of the online news website CNM, which recently reported on corruption allegations against First Lady Fathmath Ibrahim regarding the distribution of dates given by the Saudi Government and the fixed Hajj quota allotted to the First Lady. The minority shareholder and editor-in-chief of CNM cited political pressure as the reason for closing down CNM. The closing of CNM comes amidst increasing restrictions on press freedom and threats against journalists.

The on-going case against Gasim Abdul Kareem, former Manager at Bank of Maldives F. Nilandhoo branch, is a case where a possible whistleblower is being persecuted. Gasim  revealing information related to the bank transactions of SOF. Pvt Ltd.––the company accused of stealing USD 80 million of public money obtained through MMPRC resort leases–– may amount to whistleblowing.  As a consequence of revealing this information, Gasim has been in detention on charges of unlawful acquisition and disclosure of private information, since February 2016. Before any formal charges were made against him, Gasim was held in detention for over three months. TM believes that disclosure of information in public interest and in good faith by any individual to expose corruption should not amount to criminal prosecution.

TM calls on the People’s Majlis to provide legal safeguards for whistleblowers by enacting and enforcing comprehensive whistleblower protection laws based on international standards. The Government must provide protection for those who engage in anti-corruption activism, and ensure that the ACC is able to conduct their investigations into corruption cases, particularly the MMPRC case, free from intimidation and political coercion.

ENDS

View/download the press release in English and Dhivehi.


Transparency Maldives condemns the recent spate of reprisals against journalists and media outlets by the State, particularly the arrest of a group journalists from 6 different media outlets on 3 April 2016. The journalists were protesting against recent developments that further stifled media freedom in the country.

Despite repeated concerns raised by international actors, local and international civil society, journalists and political parties, media conditions continue to deteriorate with numerous incidents of harassment and violence against journalists reported, compounded with a host of legal restrictions placed on press freedom. This includes the move to criminalise defamation, a recent court order to halt the publication of Haveeru News – longest running newspaper in the country – and the arrest of 16 journalists who were calling for press freedom.

We appeal to the Government of Maldives to uphold its State obligation towards freedom of speech and association (ICCPR and its First Optional Protocol (acceded to in 2006), and immediately withdraw the Defamation Bill from the Parliament and open up space for press freedom in the Maldives as enshrined in Article 28 of the Maldivian Constitution.

ENDS

View/download the press release in English


Transparency Maldives (TM) calls on parliamentarians, political parties, civil society actors including media, and citizens to stand up to protect civil and political liberties guaranteed under Chapter 2 of the Constitution.

TM is deeply concerned by the recent bill submitted by the ruling party to criminalise defamation and expressions contrary to national interest or tenets of Islam. The bill criminalises defamatory comments, anti-Islamic rhetoric and comments threatening national security. Anyone convicted under the law faces an initial punishment of a fine ranging from MVR 50,000 (USD 3, 262/-) to MVR 5 million (USD 324,000/-). Should a convict fail to pay the fine, he/she would be sentenced to a year in prison.

The criminal defamation bill is yet another attempt to stifle freedom of expression and dissenting voice in the Maldives. The law would be an addition to the list of anti-democratic laws and regulations passed over the past year to repress criticism and mark a dramatic deterioration on an already poor human rights record.

We also note with concern that this proposed law comes at a time when a massive grand corruption case amounting to MVR 1.22 billion is being investigated with widespread allegations of involvement of high-level public officials. Restrictions on freedom of expression also infringes on freedom of information and freedom of speech, making exposing corruption and holding corrupt officials to account impossible when individuals, particularly civil society actors and journalists, can be prosecuted for dissent.

We call on the parliament, judiciary, the executive and the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives to deliver on their constitutional duty to protect civil and political liberties of Maldivians and to facilitate an environment where citizens can hold those that govern them accountable without fear of persecution.

ENDS

View/download the press release in English