FORMER Fiji prime minister Mahendra Pal Chaudhry has appeared in court in Suva, charged with crimes relating to money laundering and tax evasion.
Fiji police say Mr Chaudhry, who was held hostage for 56 days before being deposed as Fiji’s leader in a nationalist coup in 2000, was arrested yesterday morning.
Fiji police spokeswoman Ema Mua said Chaudhry appeared in Suva Magistrates Court this afternoon and was granted bail.
“He’s out on bail and he’s got bail condition and he’s to appear in the High Court next month,” Ms Mua said, later correcting the next court date to July 30.
“He’s to surrender his travel documents, passport, and he’s to report in to the nearest police post to his home every Thursday.”
Mr Chaudhry, who was Fiji’s first ethnic Indian prime minister, was charged with 12 offences relating to tax evasion and money laundering, Ms Mua said.
The 68-year-old former Fiji Labour Party leader and former trade union leader did not enter any pleas, according to the fijivillage news website.
The 12 charges date back to just after the 2000 coup and include providing false information to the Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority.
Mr Chaudhry was briefly finance minister in the current military-led government of Frank Bainimarama, during which time an independent audit cleared him of any wrongdoing in relation to his overseas financial dealings.
It is alleged he held up to $225,000 in a Commonwealth Bank of Australia account and a large sum given to his daughter in Australia was made without procedures being followed.
Mr Chaudhry made history in 1999 when he defeated former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka to become Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister, following constitutional changes which weakened the hold of ethnic Fijians on the government.
But a year later, on May 19, 2000, failed businessman George Speight led a group of special force soldiers into Fiji’s parliament, where he seized Mr Chaudhry and his government, holding them hostage for 56 days.
During the stand-off, the Fiji Military Forces took power, declared martial law and installed an interim prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, who a year later won the post in a democratic election.
Mr Chaudhry never returned to office, but has served in Commodore Bainimarama’s interim government, which seized power from Mr Qarase in a 2006 coup.
Speight and co-conspirators, Timoci Silatolu and Josefa Nata, were convicted of treason and jailed for life.
Speight, who was initially sentenced to death but had his term commuted to life, is serving his time on Nukulau Island, off Suva, while Silatolu and Nata are in the country’s maximum security prison.
Mr Chaudhry was the leader of the Fiji Labour Party until 2008 and controversially backed Commodore Bainimarama’s 2006 bloodless coup, in which the military leader seized power from Mr Qarase’s government.