The president of the Maldives appeared to accept lavish gifts from a billionaire developer who was later leased two islands in the paradise archipelago without bidding for them, a corruption watchdog alleged Tuesday.
The claims -- including that President Abdulla Yameen directly participated in a multi-million dollar scam that helped developers skirt public tenders and acquire dozens of islands and lagoons -- come days before the strongman leader seeks re-election in the nation of 340,000 people.
Yameen, whose main political rivals are in jail or exile, has denied any involvement in the alleged island-leasing scam, which first came to light in a 2016 investigation by Al Jazeera.
His deputy and then-tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb, who was accused of spearheading the scheme between 2014 and 2015 and paying off judges and politicians, was later jailed on multiple charges including corruption.
But new allegations of Yameen's involvement have been made by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which gleaned fresh details from leaked government documents and other evidence it says implicates the president.
The global investigative journalism consortium says Yameen assisted with at least two dozen no-tender deals to tourism resort developers, and directly ordered one island be leased through a state-owned company at the centre of the scandal.
Reporters also allegedly acquired photographs showing that Yameen and Adeeb were gifted luxury stays in Singapore by a billionaire hotelier, who was later granted one uninhabited Maldivian island for $5 million and another for free.
Independent reporting in the Maldives is difficult and Yameen, who has ruled since winning a controversial run-off in 2013, has cracked down on the press in the lead up to Sunday's poll.
Human Rights Watch this month warned the regime was fining news organisations in a bid to silence dissent and enforce censorship, while the opposition has accused the government of denying access to foreign media to cover the upcoming presidential election.
The US State Department this month warned of "democratic backsliding" and urged Yameen to release political prisoners, stop interfering in parliament and hold an election that reflects the will of the people.
"The United States will consider appropriate measures against those individuals who undermine democracy, the rule of law, and a free and fair electoral process," it said.
The main opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, cast doubt last month that the September 23 vote would be democratic but was confident that voters would come out against the government.
In the last election in 2013, the Supreme Court annulled the results of the first round of voting when former president Mohamed Nasheed, who lives in exile, was in the lead.
The subsequent vote was then twice delayed, allowing Yameen time to forge alliances that helped him narrowly win the contested run-off.