Ex-President of Maldives jailed for bribery and embezzlement of island leases

The Maldives criminal court sentenced the former president of the island state to eleven years in prison accept bribes and money laundering in connection with renting an island for resort development and fined him $5 million.

Behind the lush azure waves and white-sand beaches of the Maldivian atolls lie illegal leasing and bribery schemes involving the archipelago’s former president, Abdulla Yameen. (Photo: Nattu, Flickr, License)Abdulla Yameen was the focus of a 2018 OCCRP investigation that uncovered a daring multi-million dollar scheme in which dozens of Maldivian islands were leased to developers without a bid – and then the money was stolen.

Yameen steered the Indian Ocean tourist nation between 2013 and 2018. He has denied any wrongdoing and his attorney said Yameen will appeal the court decision as soon as possible, Reuters reported.

The charges implicate the lease of Aarah Island, one of the many isolated reefs in Vaavu Atoll, for resort development; a deal that reportedly saw Yameen pocket $1 million. He was also found guilty of money laundering.

The island was sold in September 2015 to a former MP named Yoosuf Naeem, who was also sentenced last Sunday to three years in prison for bribing the former president.

The OCCRP investigation found that Yameen was implicated in the massive corruption scheme that illegally leased dozens of lagoons in the Maldives for tourism developments; and offshore corporate secrets kept the identities behind many leases anonymous.

The people of the Maldives lost around $80 million on these deals.

Three years and more leaks later, OCCRP revealed that in 2015, a former deputy chief of staff to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, as well as a wealthy Russian businessman with ties to the mafia, were involved in one of those lease deals.

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The investigation also found that an Indian businessman allegedly bribed Yameen $1.1 million in exchange for illegally leasing another island.

On the day of his sentencing, Yameen was transferred to a prison on Maafushi Island, where a number of political prisoners have been held in the past, including Yameen’s predecessor, Mohammed Nasheed.

Yameen was previously sentenced to 5 years in prison in 2019 for embezzling $1 million in federal funds. According to prosecutors, it was a tourism lease fee that should have gone to the state but ended up in the former president’s personal bank account instead.

Yameen, widely credited with democratic backsliding and human rights abuses during his five-year presidency, was released two years later and returned to politics.

He has been declared the Maldives Progressive Party’s presidential candidate in the forthcoming elections in 2023.