Ex-pres Yameen's trial: ACC head testifies against defendant

Questions have been raised regarding Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC)'s role in handling the money laundering case against former president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayyoom.

The current president of ACC, Muawwiz Rasheed testified against President Yameen in his money laundering trial on Sunday. Both the defense and prosecution questioned the witness, who was the Deputy Commissioner of ACC when the events in question took place.

President Yameen is accused of defying the agreement between himself and ACC, which stipulated the former president to move funds in his Maldives Islamic Bank (MIB) account that are suspected of having being laundered, into an escrow account set up between the two parties.

While two cheques worth US$ 1 million were deposited into Yameen's MIB account by a private company named SOF Pvt Ltd, the funds are said to be embezzled state funds that were to be received by Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Company as acquisition cost for leasing islands for tourism purpose.

ACC instructed Yameen to move the deposited funds to the escrow account, however, President Yameen transferred US$ 1 million from his Bank of Maldives (BML) account instead of from the account in question. The transferred funds are reported to have been deposited into President Yameen's BML account by former Tourism Minister Moosa Zameer.

Yameen is accused of attempting to cover up the source and trail of the original funds in his MIB account in an attempt to launder the funds. The original funds deposited by SOF Pvt Ltd were moved to President Yameen's investment account at Maldives Islamic Bank.

Sunday's hearing reveals ACC did not verify the deposit made into the escrow account

Answering the questions asked by the State, Muawwiz said when the commission became aware that suspicious funds had been deposited into President Yameen's account by SOF Pvt Ltd, the commission began their investigations. In this regard, the commission met with Yameen, who was then President of Maldives, at the President's Office to clarify the matter. The commissioner of ACC at the time, Hassan Luthufee and Muawwiz himself took part in said meeting, he revealed.

"We were instructed not to bring in any recording devices. That is a policy we follow when taking statements from high level individuals. During the meeting, we asked several questions, and told the President that the best course of action would be to hand over the funds to be kept under the custody of the state", said Muawwiz.

Muawwiz further revealed that President Yameen did not agree with the proposition, stating that the funds were received for political purposes, and that the funds were with former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb. Adeeb was asked to return the funds to him, and he did not check from which account the funds were deposited into his MIB account, the president had informed ACC.

After taking the president's statement, the case came to a temporary standstill due to other individuals involved in the case that needed to be questioned being abroad at the time. President Yameen was not declared as a suspect of the case at the time as the commission had been unable to question the others involved in the case to verify the President's role in the matter.

While the case remained at a standstill, the commission first received 'a signal' from President Yameen to establish an escrow account, said Muawwiz.

"We did not receive instruction directly from President Yameen. The president's suggestion to move the funds o an escrow account came through then commissioner Hassan Luthufee", said Muawwiz.

Muawwiz said it was mutually agreed that an escrow account would be set up to keep the suspicious funds under state custody until a decision was reached regarding the legitimacy of the funds. The agreement between Yameen and ACC specifically mentioned that the funds deposited into the escrow account should be that which was deposited into Yameen's MIB account by SOF Pvt Ltd.

However, ACC came to realise that the funds deposited into the escrow account did not originate from the MIB account in question after the commission made inquiries at the MIB due to a Suspicious Transaction Report (STR) issued by the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) of MMA, said Muawwiz.

The STR revealed that the US$ one million in Yameen's MIB saving account had been transferred to an investment account at the same bank before the escrow account had been set up. It also brought to ACC's attention that the funds transferred to the escrow account came from Yameen's BML account. The amount was deposited into Yameen's BML account by then tourism Minister Moosa Zameer.

"After we clarified the information from MIB, we presented our findings to the police", said Muawwiz.

Muawwiz further said once ACC was notified by Yameen that the funds had been transferred into the escrow account, the commission did not verify if the deposited funds were that which was deposited into the MIB account by SOF Pvt Ltd, assuming it to be so. ACC did not request BML nor MIB for further information regarding the deposited funds, noted Muawwiz.

Challenges to investigation, ACC did not go to court

Defense attorney Ali Shah cross examined the witness, mostly regarding how ACC handled the case. Muawwiz said the
commission did not act differently in handling the case.

However, Muawwiz's statements revealed that ACC had followed the former president's instructions in taking the his statement, which including not recording the statement, and in writing up the statement.

"After we questioned President Yameen and left, Azima Shakoor from the President's Office called and said they wish to draft the statement themselves. So we emailed the President's Office a soft copy of the questions we asked the president earlier. They drafted the statement which we later finalized", said Muawwiz.

When asked if that was the normal procedure, and why the ACC acted in such a manner, Muawwiz did not give a clear answer.

Answering indirectly, Muwwiz said although President Yameen was not a suspect in the case, several difficulties were faced during investigation. Explaining further, Muawwiz said Maldives Islamic Bank initially refused to provide a bank statement of Yameen's account, and the first copy of the statement was received from the President's Office.

"When the bank refused to give us information, we warned them in writing, after which the bank provided us with the statements", said Muawwiz.

The commission also faced challenges in recording the President's statement, and the commission sought the opinion of the Prosecutor General on how to proceed, said Muawwiz. Although there were obstructions to the investigation, the commission did not wish to go to court over the matter, he revealed further.

"The police were investigating the case as well. The police also sought a court order to obtain account information for this case. However, they were unsuccessful, which is why we did not attempt to go to court again", said Muawwiz.

Muawwiz said although the commission had the authority to seek an order to freeze Yameen's account if necessary, the commission deliberated and decided against it. Answering the judge's questions, Muawwiz said the commission did not decide on how to proceed with the matter further.

Ex-pres Yameen attempts to strengthen his defense

During the last hearing, President Yameen had revealed the reason why he had transferred funds from another source into the escrow account. He claimed that the escrow agreement had a clause which prohibited any illegal activities to take place. Yameen said since the funds in his MIB account were suspected of being embezzled, he did not wish to touch the money in fear of committing a crime by conducting a transaction involving the same funds.

During Sunday's hearing, Yameen asked the witness several questions in an attempt to seek leverage for his previous declaration. He repeatedly questioned the witness if withdrawing funds from his MIB account was an illegal act, to which Muawwiz responded that the escrow agreement did not require for the funds to be withdrawn, but merely instructed to keep the funds on hold, with it clearly specifying that the funds should be that which was deposited by SOF Pvt Ltd.

The defendant then asked the witness if ACC had acted in accordance with the agreement, While the escrow agreement said the commission would decide if the funds needed to be returned to the state within 12 months, Muawwiz was unsure when the 12 month period ended. While Muawwiz said the 12 months would expire in June, President Yameen reminded him that the 12 months had already expired during March this year.

"A decision regarding the funds in the escrow account was not reached by the end of the twelve month. This was due to new developments such as the funds deposited into the account coming from another source than what was instructed. The issue is being investigated as a separate case", said Muawwiz.

Although Muawwiz testified in court during Sunday's trial, he will be summoned to court again to take his witness statement regarding a statement prepared by ACC.

During Sunday's hearing, a press statement issued by MMA regarding 'Stealing Paradise' documentary produced by Al Jazeera news was presented as documentary evidence by the defense. They further named former governor of MMA, Azeema Adam to give testimony in favour of Yameen.

During the next hearing, the statements of the State's remaining witnesses will be recorded. The witnesses are Former tourism ministers during former President Yameen's administration Ahmed Adeeb and Moosa Zameer, Former ACC head Hassan Luthufee, former Managing Director of MMPRC Abdulla Ziyath and Board members of BML Mohamed Shareef and Mohamed Luvaiz in addition to an individual named Mohamed Waseem Ismail.