During December 2009, me and four other friends traveled to Sri Lanka for a week. We had it planning for three long months and since all of us were earning very little, we had a payment schedule based on the time-limits provided to purchase the plane tickets.
Five of us flew to Colombo on Friday morning (December 11, 2009). We spent our first night at Citrus Hotel Hikkaduwa, back then known as Amaya Reef Hotel. Hikkaduwa is a small town 61 miles away from Colombo in the south coast of Sri Lanka. We spent the second and third night at Cinnamon Grand Colombo and the last two nights at a cheap hotel called Juliana Hotel.
Our flight from Colombo to Male’ was scheduled to leave morning 12.15am on December 17. The hotel agreed to let us stay no later than 2pm, we checked out at sharp 2pm and moved our luggage and stuff to a friend’s place and we were hanging out until evening 8pm when we got back for a shower before departing to the airport to catch our flight. We had a smooth flight, and before we knew it we had touched down at Male’ International Airport.
We got our passports stamped at the immigration and collected our luggage from the luggage belt and proceeded to the customs area.
I placed my suitcase on the x-ray machine belt for screening and the customs officer wanted me to open my suitcase and questioned me if I had any type of bottle in my luggage to which I immediately responded NO. I began wondering myself if I really had any type of bottle in my luggage and then I immediately told him that I actually had a bottle of body-lotion and he said he is looking for something slightly larger than a bottle of body-lotion. I didn’t keep my suitcase locked since I didn’t have any valuables, just a few clothes and gift items. I unzipped my suitcase and opened to search for whatever the customs officer was looking for and my eyes caught on a glass bottle that looked like a bottle of liquor or spirit, the label read “Pepe Lopez”, it was an unopened bottle of tequila. I was in shock and began stammering, the customs officer was busy searching someone else’s luggage but he knew something was not right and asked me what it was and I told him softly that I had a bottle of liquor in my suitcase. He promptly came and had a look and reported to the rest of the customs authorities including police. Four other friends who traveled with me waited outside the arrival terminal, half an hour later I was able to call them to tell them to go to home and I am not coming.
The customs and security personnel took me away to an isolation room for further checking and questioning, then they took me away to the Police airport office where I spent my night sitting in a chair until the next morning. They gave me breakfast at about 8am and escorted me in a speedboat to Male’ where I was picked-up by a police vehicle at jetty #2 and transported to Male’ Custodial (Atholhu-vehi). They took my fingerprints, mug shots and a statement to prepare the paperwork to file my case and send to the Prosecutor General’s office.
Then they detained me in a large cell alone for two hours, others in the nearby cells began questioning me over my offense and I told them it was for possession of liquor. I wasn’t rude to them but I didn’t give them anymore details. Two police officers came and took me away to the men’s room of the prison requesting to supply a urine sample as condition of release. I gave them my urine sample and they told me the laboratory results will be out the next day and then they let me go home. I felt relieved and went home.
I was under the impression the matter was over until I received a court summon thirteen months later to attend the Criminal Court under the charges for import of liquor or spirits into the Maldives without a permit from the Ministry of Economic Development. They weren’t charging me for the consumption or use of alcohol since the laboratory tests for ethanol and drugs turned negative for my urine.
Import Prohibition Act (4/75)
It prohibits the import, supply, possession and sale of liquor or spirits into the Maldives without a permit from the Ministry of Economic Development; if not punishable on the same basis as offense of trafficking and could be imprisoned in jail, banished in an island or house arrest for three to eight years, or a fine between 1000/- and 5000/- Maldivian rufiyaa (USD 65/- and USD 325/-).
I appeared at the courtroom on the day of the first hearing and I was given a grace period to find an attorney to represent me. The next hearing happened thirty days later and I managed to find myself a prominent attorney who was also a Member of the Maldives Parliament. My case was painstaking and it took like forever, the period between one hearing and the other was never within thirty days, there were some days that the judge gets absent on the days my hearings were scheduled, there were days my attorney gets held up at the Parliament due to important sessions and sittings.
Finally a verdict was announced in October 2011 and it was a fine of 1000/- Maldivian rufiyaa since it was my first offense and I did not have any criminal records. I paid and settled the dues the same day to the criminal court, however this will appear as a criminal record and a black mark for me for life.
I don’t know who placed that bottle in my suitcase up till today, but I learned my lesson. I am very cautious now when I travel and always keep my luggage locked. This has been by far the worst thing that has happened to me while traveling.
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