Mahendra Chaudhry in the Spotlight
I have been asked by a reader why I have not published anything on the current charges laid against Mahendra Chaudhry, his supposed detention, and the Attorney-General's clarification of the charges.
The Attorney-General is, of course, correct in saying "no one should comment on the matter as it was now before the Courts." But this should not prevent general comments on the Chaudhry situation. He is too public and too controversial a figure for no comment, and rumour and speculation is inevitable when questions remain unanswered. This is one of the drawbacks with the ongoing enforcement of the Public Emergency Regulations.
First, it should be noted that the foreign media once again misreported what had happened. There can be little doubt that that was deliberate, either by them or more likely by whoever supplied them with information from Fiji.
The former PM was not arrested or even detained and then released, as they reported. FLP spokesman Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi said the foreign media reports were not true. Chaudhry's son, Suva lawyer Rajendra Chaudhry, said his father had been asked by police to come to the police station so he could be questioned. He returned home after questioning, and was asked to return the following day when charges were formally made. He has to report daily to the Suva Point police station close to his home, bail has been set at $1,000, and he has surrendered his passport. The case against him is scheduled for 30th July in the Suva High Court.
Secondly, the charges he faces were brought by the Reserve Bank and involve twelve different counts of alleged money laundering and tax infringements. They do not involve the charges for which he was investigated and controversially cleared when he was Minister of Finance in the early Bainimarama government. The Attorney-General said that on that occasion government had asked a team of lawyers and accountants to look at general allegations against Chaudhry made through anonymous letters.
Many people have long questioned the impartiality of those who found him innocent of wrongdoing when undeclared money donated in India finished up in his Australian bank account. At that time he was Minister of Finance in the Bainimarama government. People, perhaps unfairly but inevitably, wondered whether this was why charges were not pressed. It certainly did not look good. Justice was not seen to be done.
The current charges also do not look good. People are again wondering whether the charges against him are politically motivated. There is no way of knowing. Any charges against any political opponent will be seen by some as suspect. My "gut feeling" is that whether or not the charges are proven, they are based on evidence that the Reserve Bank's lawyers think will hold up in court, and I am confident the final ruling of the High Court will not be politically influenced.
But this leaves the question of why the Reserve Bank drew Chaudhry's name out of the hat when so many other cases could be more pressing. This decision could have been politically influenced, or if could be that all high profile cases were being investigated. Again, we have no way to know, any more than we would have known had the charges been made in 1997, 2001 or 2007 when he was also a high profile figure.
His previous absolution and present charges obviously raise doubts that are certainly not good for government or the perception of the judiciary. While I was in Fiji recently, I spoke at some length with several members of the judiciary, and I am as confident as one can be that the judiciary is independent of executive interference and would make every effort not to succumb were government to try to exert influence.**
But this leaves the Director of Public Prosecutions and, in this case, the Reserve Bank, who could be indirectly influenced by government. The case against another prominent figure, Imrana Jalal, certainly looked suspect. We will have to await the Court judgment. But if it goes against her, she has a right of appeal. As indeed does Chaudhry.
In the last analysis, people will believe what they want to believe, whatever the actual or circumstantial evidence. With government efforts to rout out corruption and other criminal activities, several prominent figures can expect to be in court in the next few years. Some people will see them all as victims of political persecution, and their successful prosecution as evidence of government interference in the judiciary.
I think all, or to be more cautious, almost all, cases will be judged fairly, and where this is, or is thought not to be the case, the cause will be the preconceptions and prejudices of the judges -- the perennial human failing that happen in all judiciaries -- and not political interference.
In this particular case, though, one thing definitely points to no government interference or influence: the timing.
Why would government want even a whisper of Chaudhry to steal the limelight in the wake of their Natadola successes!
** The Citizen's Constitutional Forum and the NZ Law Society have questioned the independence of the judiciary. I expect to comment on the CCF Report soon.