NOT BEFORE TIME

Regime charges Fiji’s ex-PM Mahendra Chaudhry

  • Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor
  • From: The Australian
  • July 24, 2010

FIJI’S government has charged former PM Mahendra Chaudhry with money laundering, tax evasion and failing to declare foreign currency.

Mr Chaudhry, who was detained by police on Thursday, was bailed for $F1000 ($575) to return to court next Friday. He was required to hand in his passport and must report every Thursday to Suva police station.

The arrest received saturation coverage from the military regime’s propaganda arms.

The core of the 12 charges is that Mr Chaudhry failed to notify the Reserve Bank of Fiji about his bringing in to the country about $1.5 million during the past decade, including donations from India, after he was removed from power by a coup in 2000.

The money was allegedly first kept in Australia, before being taken to Fiji. Mr Chaudhry, 68, was represented in a packed Suva Magistrates Court by his son, lawyer Rajendra Chaudhry. No plea was entered.

An Amnesty International spokeswoman said: “Since April 2009, we have witnessed a pattern of interference with the judiciary by the authorities in Fiji, for example, the sudden sacking of judges and magistrates.

“Politicians critical of government have also been targeted through measures like travel bans, suspension of pensions and malicious prosecution.

“These moves are part of a broader pattern of stifling dissent. The authorities have no respect for the rule of law.”

Labour Party leader Mr Chaudhry is the last of Fiji’s three surviving former prime ministers to be penalised by the government. Sitiveni Rabuka, who won an election after turning democrat following his 1987 coups, was earlier this year stripped of his pension for criticising the regime.

Laisenia Qarase, the leader toppled by Commodore Frank Bainimarama in December 2006, has been charged with abuse of office while he was chairman of Fijian Holdings from 1992-95.

Mr Chaudhry, the only Fiji Indian of five national leaders to be elected since independence from Britain in 1970, was held hostage, with most of his cabinet, in the 2000 coup led by George Speight.

He at first backed Commodore Bainimarama after the latter seized power in the name of reform in December 2006, and was made finance minister. But they had a falling out, and Mr Chaudhry resigned two years ago, later attacking Commodore Bainimarama as “autocratic and dictatorial”.

The arrest of the former prime minister tops a tumultuous week in Fiji. Commodore Bainimarama scored a public relations coup by staging an “Engaging Fiji” meeting just a fortnight from the annual summit of the Pacific Islands Forum, from which Fiji has been suspended.

He attracted to his rival gathering the leaders of PNG, Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu, and representatives from other island states.

Yesterday at the meeting, he called on Australia to partner with him in reforming Fiji: “Further interruptions wouldn’t in any way help Fiji’s situation, and will only strain relations” and “dampen our aim for elections”.

He earlier announced that Fiji had decided to join the Non-Aligned Movement of more than 100 developing nations, and that the Arab League had invited the Pacific island countries to collaborate with it.

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