In February 2016, Gasim Abdul Kareem, a regional manager with the Bank of Maldives, was arrested for leaking bank statements that exposed a massive corruption scheme. The documents showed a government-run company was selling islands for resort development below market rates and funnelling tens of millions of dollars into the private accounts of wealthy businessmen and politicians. Gasim made the information public after the Bank of Maldives ignored an audit of the suspicious activities.
Gasim’s disclosure would grow into the largest corruption scandal in the history of the Maldives. Eventually the president himself, Abdulla Yameen, would be sentenced to five years in prison for money laundering. At the time of his arrest, however, Gasim was the one facing a long future behind bars: the Maldives had no whistleblower protection law.
The government held Gasim in prison for four months before finally charging him with data theft and illegal disclosure and closing his trial to the public. Gasim’s lawyer, Nazim Sattar, asked for help from our local chapter, Transparency Maldives, one of the few organisations doing anti-corruption work in a nation where activists were often intimidated and sometimes even killed. They recognised that this scandal was part of a bigger picture: according to the latest Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) – Asia, which surveyed more than 20,000 people in 17 nations about their day-to-day experiences of corruption, almost three quarters of Asians think that government corruption is a big problem. In the Maldives, a staggering 90 per cent of citizens think this.
A global response
Transparency Maldives’ Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC) provided key support to Gasim’s legal defence, helping Sattar argue in court that Gasim was a whistleblower, not a criminal. Transparency International’s secretariat in Berlin also brought international attention to his case and enlisted the New York Bar Association to urge the Prosecutor General’s Office to consider the good-faith basis of Gasim’s actions. The penal code of the Maldives allowed for an exemption in such a case.
At the same time, Transparency Maldives raised awareness about whistleblowing in the country. It produced a series of graphics, videos and articles with messages like “Gasim should be protected, not prosecuted.” As Gasim’s sentencing neared, Transparency Maldives launched a #DropTheCase campaign on social media, which garnered support from Maldivian opposition politicians and the U.S. Embassy to Maldives. The court ultimately convicted Gasim but gave him a lenient sentence, allowing him to walk free on time served.
Enshrining protections in law
In 2016, Transparency Maldives also began to draft a whistleblower protection bill so that future anti-corruption activists would not face retaliation. It consulted with the secretariat and our Irish chapter in writing the bill. After President Yameen lost an election in 2018, Transparency Maldives presented its proposal to the new government—which ran on an anti-corruption platform—and worked closely with ministers on an official whistleblower protection bill.
Parliament passed the bill in October 2019, and the president quickly ratified it into law. Less than four years after Gasim’s arrest, the Maldives enacted new protections for all Maldivian citizens who are witnesses to corruption in the workplace. In the end, Gasim’s brave act not only exposed a massive scandal but made it safer for his fellow citizens to speak out when they find wrongdoing. The GCB finds that 56 per cent of Maldivians think ordinary citizens can help stop corruption, and Gasim has shown what a big difference speaking up can make – even leading to the authoritarian president, Abdulla Yameen, going to prison for crimes exposed by Gasim.
Transparency Maldives’ contribution to the development of the whistleblower protection bill was invaluable. The bill was developed entirely by Transparency Maldives, and they conducted a national awareness programme as well as lobbying with legislators.
There is still work to be done, however. Gasim struggled to find work due to his criminal record and deserves a full exoneration. The new whistleblower protection law has also not yet been tested in court; Transparency Maldives and our secretariat are continuing public campaigns to raise awareness about whistleblowing in the Maldives and monitoring the country to make sure the next whistleblower receives the full protection of the new law.
If you are thinking about blowing the whistle on wrongdoing that you have witnessed, please consider that whistleblower protections, where they exist, apply only in certain circumstances. This means that those who are considering blowing the whistle should be careful and seek advice before they do to ensure that they are protected under the law.
Fortunately, Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) provide free and confidential legal advice to witnesses and victims of corruption, including those who have not yet spoken up. With more than 100 offices in more than 60 countries, ALACs provide an accessible, effective way for people to report corrupt and demand action. Learn more: https://www.transparency.org/en/alacs
This article was written as part of the Global Corruption Barometer – Asia 2020, the largest, most detailed survey of citizens’ views on corruption and their direct experiences of bribery in Asia.