Mahendra Chaudhry in the Spotlight

Opinion
Crosbie Walsh

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.

Comments

Anonymous said…
You write: '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!'

Precisely, it was to show his golf playing buddies that Franks coup was carried out to weed out corruption and he needs time to hunt down others besides Chaudhry, and that is why he charged and brought Mahend to court - he timed it well
Anonymous said…
Good piece Croz.

Indeed the judiciary is independent in Fiji, the rule of law is respected and Ms Jalal got to go to prison for corruption in the operation of a fish and chips shop. I fully support the reform agenda of the government which will bring many corrupt politicians who have stolen large sums of money from the people of Fiji. And lets not forget the land decree. It has provisions that allow anyone who feels disenfranchised to challenge the Commodores decisions in court.
Anonymous said…
Hook Line and Sinker

....Looks like you have swalloed it all
Anonymous said…
That's possibly the most blinkered peice you have written to date.

RBF...just happened to complain now. How many other complaints have they made ?

These are new charges - um no they are not. They where raised in the media earlier. PM chose to ignore them and constructed a narrow scope to clear him.

No mention of the role of the media or the publisher who was deported because he allowed the same accusations to be printed ?

No mention that mahen had ramped up his anti government statements.

Accepting it was a RBF compaliant -no mention of Mahen's attack on the RBF only weeks ago ?

Oh and you spoke to a couple of judges. If there was interference do you really think they would tell you given your pro military stance ? They like there jobs and want to keep them.
Joe said…
Where are the new charges Croz? It does not matter who charges MC, police, RBF, FICAC etc. The charges are exactly the same as what he was cleared for previously dating back to 2001. Where is that report that was supposedly made available to the public in which MC was cleared by a Bris lawyer who incidentally works for the same firm as the AG did previously, and the accountant who was Aiyaz's aunt's work mate. Something is just not right.

We will refrain from making reference to the case proper because it is before the courts, however, we can talk about the method of execution, which stinks.
The real clean up said…
The arrest and detention of Chaudry is the best thing the junta has done. If they now arrest Khaiyum they will get my vote. Oh, I forgot - we can't vote in Fiji. hopefully the real clean up has begun.
Anonymous said…
The discussion about process is futile and totally besides the point. The law is what the Commodore says it is. What matters is the outcome of a risk assessment the junta has made: Do we trade the risk that crooked MC mobilizes resistance in response to this prosecution against the wave of support that this move will generate amongst indigenous Fijians? Apparently, pleasing iTaukei has won. Are we really going to see a re-alignment of policy here? Do we see a re-definition of the enemy? Is this the beginning of the junta showing its true nationalist color? If yes the AG would be logically the next to go: charges of nepotism (pulling in his brother) and perhaps the odd corruption charge would buy the regime a great deal of sympathy at a time when it really need it. After all the AG is clearly the most hated crony of the dictator.
Anonymous said…
Insider says

@ anonymous - You are spot on.

Sorry Croz, on this one you are way of the mark.
Anonymous said…
Thinking...not sleeping

Sorry Croz this is a bit long but started last nigth and kept going. In parts so I can post. Publish if you think it will be of interest.


1. The military completely under estimated how hard it would be to run government.

In the early days after the coup I joined a meeting with the new PM and his military council talking to business. They seemed genuine in wanting ideas on what they could do to fix various things. What became very clear though was they had absolutely no idea about the even the most basic principles of business or economics. I am talking absolutely no idea. The complete naivety scared me even more than their guns.

2. Early on the new FB government took on a lot of bad advice

I saw their naivety as a concern but others saw it as opportunity. An opportunity to get back at competitors, an opportunity to push personal issues, an opportunity to get advisory jobs. Many of the early mistakes of this government were because they took poor advice. Even their choice of finance minister was terrible. The first thing Mahen did was target those he perceived had hurt him in the past. His policies where disastrous – tax on water, attacking the tourism industry, an increase in all the investment fees, remittance taxes on profits. You can’t pretend to be pro-business and have a anti-business finance minister. It Fiji Water and it decision to close their factory (for just one day) that finished Mahen. The corruption charges could like many other things be brushed away.

3. Most ‘good decisions’ now a reversal of poor decision earlier

It was Fiji water that perhaps the most brought home the message to government. They took the bold step of closing their factory. Only for a day but it was enough to shake the living day lights out of them. Most of the perceived ‘good decisions’ this government has made recently are actually reversing the poor decisions made early on. Mahen is now gone, sensible water tax agreed, remittance tax gone…after stinging the corporate world for two to three years worth.

4. Now they take little advice

The downside of the taking on board the poor advice early is now government listen to few. They are suspicious of everyone. There are a couple of exceptions. The AG of course and more recently the new RBF governor. The former is skilled is debating and speaking. The later has told the government what they want to hear. The new RBG governor actually came to power by promising to get things but most importantly to start putting a positive spin on events, numbers. The way the military saw it the RBF should be ‘spruiking the economy’. Thankfully recently they seem to be listening to the IMF also.
Anonymous said…
Thinking....no sleeping

Part 2 (only publish if you got part 1)

5. We can’t blame them for everything

We can’t blame them for the cyclone or world economic crisis. We can’t blame them for the poor decisions of governments past. We can’t even blame them for poor FNPF investment decisions. We can’t blame them for the poor performance of the public sector. We can’t blame them for the world changes in the tourism sector.

6. But they should acknowledge

Their coup (just like previous ones) had a devastating and immediate negative impact on the economy. Their immediate response to the coup under finance minister MC made things worse not better. They have done little to restore investor confidence.

They have made many wrong decisions – FNPF is not all there fault but they did appoint all the board members who completed Natadola way way over budget. They sacked them later.

7. Mighty words, minor action and double standards

When you hear the PM talk getting rid of corruption the words are mighty. No one can dissagree with what he says and there are many minor cases of this government taking action. In particular against public servants – well done. They are all minor cases though. Where is the massive corruption the former prime minister was involved in ? They have also left themselves open to percieved or real double standards. There are too many to mention (think Francis Kean, AG’s brother, Mahen and tax). I felt the big turning point was when the PM paid himself back pay. The numbers did not stack up and no one believed it. He was either negliable in his duties and should have resigned for never having taken leave or he was simply lining his pockets. Double standards. A true leader would not have done it.
Anonymous said…
Thinking....not sleeping

part three

7. Clever by half

The charter process started out OK. I was involved in this as well. But much of it was pre written by John Sammy. Minister failed to turn up. The process was never going to work. The voting on the acceptance was a complete joke. I remember clearly the day our house keeper (yes I have a house keeper, nothing sinister in that) came to me scared that the military had arrived and asked her to sign the charter. She is a reasonable reader but said she wanted to read it and thought it might be hard to understand. Maybe it was a good idea to start with but it became a farce. The final copy I have still starts out by talking about ‘respecting the constitution and rule of law’

Other examples of clever by half included calling for dialogue then excluding anyone with a alternate view. The latest ecample of clever by half is the spin on Mahen. It is different now it’s the RBF, it’s different charges. No one believes it.

8. What about travel bans ?

I can only speak for myself and close friends on this one. I have used this excuse to not accept formal government positions. Frankly its easier than saying no. It deflects the anger to Australia and away from me. I’ve learnt not to make Frank angry. I don’t want to become a target. My friends except one fill the same way.

The travel bans have not been successful in changing there minds on anything. But they certainly have really annoyed those in power. Travel has long been considered a ‘perk’ of government and senior positions. The military wanted these perks – call it low level corruption if you like but they where wanting nothing more than others had got before. This hit Frank and his key people on a personal level.
What now 3.5 years later ?

I don’t see much changing over the next 2-3 years. Economy will struggle but not collapse, business will continue. I can’t see any progress on sugar and its hard to see any happening without massive investment and new management. Tourism needed a shake up and will re-invent itself. Actually many forget that Fiji benefited from SARS and the Bali bombing so prior to the coup Fiji had had it pretty easy. The industry has adjusted.

Elections will they happen ?

As it stands today the promises are there. Maybe even the will but I don’t believe they will happen. There is no incentive to all those military people enjoying power. There is no incentive for the PM who becomes more comfortable doing the village visit and grand openings. Most of all though there is no real evidence of progress. Very little real nation building and no reconciliation all. Fiji is becoming more and more divided.

To be continued…….
Corruption Fighter said…
There's no mystery about the fact that an inquiry cleared Chaudhry but now he's been charged. It seems that one of the things he did wrong was provide false information to FIRCA. According to the Times of India: "The 12 charges date back to just after the coup and include providing false information to the Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority (FIRCA). "

Given that the allegations of money being held in overseas accounts were around when FIRCA went through the motions of clearing Chaudhry, FIRCA could have contacted RBF at the time to check what foreign currency transfers had been made and or declared by Chaudhry. The fact that FIRCA didn't contact RBF warrants investigation. And the fact that FIRCA was headed by a coup appointed head, raises the issue of possible corruption.

Croz, you seem to be a bit slow off the mark with this possible corruption. You seem to accept any allegation against the Qarase regime with or without evidence, but allegations against the regime that ousted him are treated with a delicate concern for fairness.
Walker Texas Ranger said…
@ Corruption fighter

Corruption is corruption is corruption. No matter where it sits it thwarts national development and greases the pockets and the private interests of those paid from public money. Corruption is a cancer. No one must shrink from taking it on and no one must shrink from providing the evidence they have. Many people know of it and are staying silent - a cowardly and covert device to protect their own interests. Eventually, a National Commission will be required along the lines of the Legal Services Commission with a brave Commissioner, happy to accept information and evidence from the public of Fiji who have suffered too long from the effects of GRAFT. Call it what it is: STEALING AND THEFT. There are accountants and lawyers, insurance brokers and bankers in Fiji. All have access to evidence of corruption and they have had this evidence for at least fifteen years since the National Bank of Fiji collapse. Taxpayers of Fiji must have their day in court. Who will represent them?' A Day of Reckoning beckons.
Croz said…
@ Thinking not sleeping ... Thoughtful, perceptive, worrying: a businessman's view of how politics can damage an economy. You write, "To be continued..." Is there any good news? What should they do now? What should Aust and NZ do to help? Can the Chambers of Commerce have any influence? Who can influence Bainimarama on the economy?
Joe said…
@ Thinking not sleeping
We are waiting for part 4.
On elections, I think it will happen in 2014. It can also take place much earlier than that.

As I see it, Frank is more focused on doing away with people he sees as a threat, eg, MC case is so timely that the poor guy might be behind bars come 2014. Now look at Ratu Inoke situation. He is in for 7yrs, but will be released before the proposed election, so the next best thing for FB is to reopen the 2000 mutiny charges to make sure Takiveikata remains behind bars in 2014. Why doesnt he reopen the NBF file and rake in the real big fish? Your guess is as good as mine
sara'ssista said…
This is a fantastic discussion and i commend all bloggers, it has been a joy to read.
Corruption Fighter said…
@Walker Texas Ranger

Thank you for the advice that all corruption is bad. Seems like we're on the same page there - so what do you think of the suggestion that there was a cover-up of the Chaudhry money laundering and tax evasion charges when the IG's Committee allegedly looked into the matter?

Why did the Committee not contact the RBF, given that the foreign currency aspects of the case were already out in the public eye (in the Fiji Sun if I recall correctly)?

Do you have a view on that Mr Walker? That's the real issue.

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