Former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, currently serving an 11-year jail sentence for bribery and money laundering convictions related to the leasing of Aarah Island in Vaavu Atoll, has denied having any prior knowledge of the island’s lease.

Taking the stand at the appeal hearing for his criminal conviction in the High Court on Wednesday, Yameen stated that islands leased for tourism development fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Tourism. He emphasised that the President’s Office did not oversee these procedures.

Yameen was convicted after the Criminal Court found him guilty of accepting a bribe of US$1 million from former parliament member Yousuf Naeem, in exchange for leasing the island to a company affiliated with Naeem.

During the appeal hearing, Yameen asserted that he was unaware of Naeem’s intention to lease an island. He commented, “I had no knowledge of Yousuf Naeem’s desire to lease an island. He had not formally or informally communicated this intention to the President’s Office, nor had I received any SMS messages regarding it.”

Expanding on the money he received during the relevant period, Yameen clarified that it was a foreign exchange transaction intended to fund political campaigning. He explained that he approached Naeem because he couldn’t find any other buyers who were selling US dollars at bank rates. “The only thing Yousuf Naeem did was sell me US dollars at the bank rate. I did not derive any benefit from this transaction,” he elaborated.

He also pointed out that since this transaction didn’t occur during an election period, there was no requirement to disclose it according to campaign financing regulations, and as the funds were not intended for a political party, they were not directed to the party’s accounts.

He said instead, these funds were allocated for campaigning as a sitting president, carrying out separate affairs from the party. However, the state contends that such funding should be allocated in accordance with election and political party laws.

Yameen also contested the documents presented by the state as evidence of his instructions to the bank. He highlighted the difficulty in verifying the authenticity of the documents due to handwritten notes and the bank account’s closure since then.

He further claimed that there was no evidence connecting the President’s Office to the decision to transfer jurisdiction of Aarah from the Ministry of Fisheries to the Ministry of Tourism. 

He asserted that communications from the President’s Office were typically phrased as “ordered by the President,” which didn’t necessarily indicate the president’s direct involvement or knowledge.

During the appeal, Yameen also noted that he exercised his right to remain silent during investigations due to ongoing police harassment. He explained that the investigation officers repeatedly altered the same documents, resulting in the resignation of his then legal counsel. Consequently, he chose to invoke his right to silence and address the allegations in court.

Wednesday’s proceedings marked the conclusion of Yameen’s evidence presentation, with upcoming sessions scheduled to include arguments from the state.