Al Jazeera investigation exposes a $1.5bn money-laundering plot, bribery, theft and fraud in paradise.
“It is difficult to carry!” says one of three men who delivered bags of cash to the Maldives president.
To those who deal with them, they are known simply as “the bros”. Several young men on the run from the Maldives’ government and seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. They hold the key to understanding the corruption in their country and how it works because they were at the heart of the operation.
“I think biggest headline I can tell you is about the corruption,” says one of the men. “That’s why the president is scared. I mean, he didn’t know that I had all the information.”
In secretly filmed confessions obtained by Al Jazeera, three of them calmly explain how they carried cash to the president and many of the political elites of the Maldives.
“For the president, it’s difficult to carry even!” laughs one as he describes carrying black travel bags full of dollar bills.
“The bros” went from being the untouchable bad boys of the Maldives, rubbing shoulders with pop stars and alleged Armenian gangsters, to hiding out in Wales through a long, wet winter.
How matters have gotten to this point is something they and their boss have had plenty of time to consider.
In a written response, the Maldives government says there is no evidence in the “Stealing Paradise” report connecting President Yameen or current members of his government to any wrongdoing.
It notes that the claims already form part of a wider investigation initiated by President Yameen in February 2016. The government has asked Al Jazeera to provide any evidence which may be relevant to this investigation.
Each of the men, either in a formal or informal capacity, worked for Ahmed Adeeb, arguably once the most influential politician in the country. Until October 2015, he was vice president and the “boss of all gangs” in the Maldives – as he boasted to one of his many girlfriends in a text message.
Then, there was a blast on the president’s yacht, and life changed for Adeeb and his cohorts, who became prime suspects in what was claimed to be an attempted assassination.
Today, Adeeb is in prison, and nearly every day, there is a new trial and set of charges to tackle. He has been sentenced for “terrorism” and corruption, with more charges to come. His lawyers expect that when all the cases are done, Adeeb will be facing 100 years in prison.
Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit has obtained the data from three of Vice President Adeeb’s iPhones, and they reveal how he managed “the bros”, a cabal of corrupt officials, police officers, judges and members of parliament.
On the run
After Adeeb’s arrest, “the bros” escaped prison and their own country to Sri Lanka, taking with them three of Adeeb’s smartphones and his laptop.
They thought they were safe, then in November last year, one of the men was arrested.
Ahmed Ashraf, known locally as “Shumba Gong”, was only 18, but he was a master of social media and led the campaign to cultivate Adeeb’s popularity and online profile.
He was taken back to the Maldives, where his lawyers say he was tortured and faced charges of issuing death threats to a political official.
Not fancying the same fate, the others jumped on a plane to London and in bed with the opposition in exile. They had made the calculation that it was the only way they would be safe from the grasp of the Maldives government. So they agreed to discuss corruption in exchange for protection.
They quickly applied for asylum as the government issued international arrest warrants under the Interpol system. Suddenly, their faces appeared all over the internet as wanted fugitives.
The Maldives’ prosecutors did not hold back with the charges. Mohamed Allam Latheef, aka Moho, 26, Mohamed Hussain, aka Oittey, 36, and Ahmed Ishfah Ali, 27, were accused of threatening catastrophe, criminal property damage, use of a dangerous weapon during an offence, trafficking, possession of a weapon and “terrorism”.
A flair for corruption
“Adeeb has been our family friend for the past 13 years,” says Moho. It was a lucrative relationship, and Moho had obtained a paradise island and ran a graphic design business called Scores of Flair Pvt Ltd. It had an unusually high cash turnover because SOF helped Adeeb embezzle $70m.
In the video testimony, Moho explains how the corruption worked. From 2012 to 2015, Adeeb led the tourism ministry, which received nearly $100m via its island leasing agency, the Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation.
Around $80m of that money was transferred straight back out, $70m of it to SOF Pvt Ltd. The MMPRC’s Managing Director, Abdulla Ziyath, had changed the agency’s rules, allowing him to sign and stamp the back of cheques from tourism tycoons and divert them to another account.
The money never even reached the government’s accounts. The cheques were paid to SOF or companies linked to Adeeb’s family. SOF then used the money to pay all sorts of people on Adeeb’s instructions.
SOF paid 210,000 euros ($280,000) to Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for her law firm Omnia’s services to the government. Moho and Ishfah say SOF also paid the bills for pop stars Sean Paul and Akon. Sean Paul was set to perform in the Maldives in 2014 before a death threat led him to cancel the concert. Akon performed on January 8, 2015.
There is no suggestion that Cherie Blair, Sean Paul or Akon had any knowledge of the unlawful activities described in this article.
Bags of cash
Moho was central to the theft of public funds.
“I get a call from Mr Adeeb,” says the SOF director. “He tells me that you will get a call from Ziyath, send someone to collect [the cheque].”
At that point, Moho quickly deposits the cheque into his own SOF company account, signed and stamped by Ziyath, and soon after, withdraws vast amounts of cash, which he carries in “travel bags” to Adeeb, the president and their allies.
“A bag full of cash?” asks the interviewer. “Yeah,” says Moho. “Some bags to the PPM [ruling party] office, some bags to the First Lady and other bags to Mr Adeeb.”
Moho says he also got orders for bags of cash from President Yameen, via Vice President Adeeb. “He speaks on the phone, on speaker and the president gives him the order to take the cash – to split it in two and take one bag to him. So I am the one who takes the bag to him.”
Moho says he also paid in cheques directly to the president’s bank account at the Maldives Islamic Bank. “Before the vice president was arrested, he asked me to deposit a cheque to the president’s account, directly to his account,” says Moho. “Two, I did two transactions.”
“It had to go through the MMA, Maldives Monetary Authority, to go to this bank. So it takes about three days to make the transaction. But I noticed that it was on a fast track. It was transferred that day, within three hours, into that account.”
The MMA did not respond to a request for comment.
Ahmed Ishfah Ali was the SOF company secretary and worked for Moho.
“Sometimes there are huge amounts of money that’s come for SOF Pvt Ltd,” he says. “Cash in, cash out. Always. Because it comes in, it goes out.
“A few times I have been and met some senior members of the government. I just personally go and give the money and cheques most of the time. The smallest cheque would be $100,000,” he says. “It might be a million dollars.”
He goes on to list some of the Maldives’ leading politicians and the president’s relatives in receipt of the stolen money.
“The whole system is corrupted,” says Moho of the Maldives under President Yameen. “Since he came to power, he has been bribing the MPs, the judges, lawyers and everyone else.”
Mohamed “Oittey” Hussain was Vice President Adeeb’s driver. Older than the other “bros”, he explains how Adeeb was his “childhood friend” from school and how they played football and later studied together in Sri Lanka.
When he was tourism minister, Adeeb’s official driver was unreliable, so he ended up asking Oittey to drive and deliver bags of cash as well.
“Sometimes I ask him what is in the bag,” says Oittey. “He would tell me that it’s full of money. It’s very heavy.”
“I have given money to the president,” he adds calmly. “I call up Adeeb. I will tell him that I have this money, where I can keep it? Sometimes he will tell me that we are keeping in the house, or sometimes he will tell me we are keeping in the office. Then sometimes he will tell me go and give it to the president.”
“One time, Yameen was angry with me,” Oittey begins an anecdote. “Adeeb just texted me and asked me to give $100, so I thought it was $100,000. So I took two bundles … $50, 50$.”
“Yameen came down. He himself came down. So I just gave the money.” But the president was not happy and Oittey says he pulled a face. “He told me to give $1m, and I just gave $100,000. So again, I have to go to Yameen’s place. He came and he collected the money. This was around 1:00am in the night.”
Why did the president use this crooked network of kids controlled by the vice president to embezzle millions of dollars of public money?
Because “there would be no evidence”, says Ishfah. “They can be kept from the picture at the end of the day,” he says. “We are the people who are in the picture, but all those people who have received these monies and have got those things, their names are not there.”
“I didn’t have any interest in politics or anything,” complains Moho. “I mean, I didn’t want to threaten anyone. But now I must try for my survival.”
For the time being, that means hiding out and hoping for political asylum. While President Yameen is in power, a return to paradise is impossible.
The Maldives government failed to respond to a request for comment at the time this article was written.