Fr Barr's "Arrest": Poor Communications, Tense Nerves Cause Fumbles
Compare this with “efficiency” Fiji-style. Five masked men conduct a daylight bank robbery in Samabula; six prisoners escape from Naboro prison, assisted by contraband smuggled in by outside supporters ; Estonian Risto Harmet, accused of assisting Ratu Tevita Mara flee Fiji on a Tongan naval, found not guilty by the Courts; the President of the Fiji Trade Union Congress, Daniel Urai on bail for “political violence”, given permission by the Courts to attend an ILO trade union meeting in China only to be stopped at Nadi by the Border police who took so long getting a reply from Suva about his status that the plane was taking off as permission came though.
This resulted in the Ministry of Information permanent secretary Sharon Smith-John moving into damage control and having to make an unheard of two apologies in one day. The first saying Government condemned the excessive force used in the arrest of five of the escapees; the second regretting the inconvenience to Daniel Urai who, reports have it is now in China and intent on seeking reimbursement for the inconvenience. [It is unclear whether Risto Harmet was awarded costs by the Court but even if he was, his business will have experienced major loss of income during the months it has taken to bring his case to court and reach a judgement.]
Then there's the confused story of what were to be three NGO-sponsored marches on Friday. The ECREA march on UN International Peace Day march was approved, banners had been made and all was in readiness, and then the police withdrew the permit and declined when asked to offer either apology or explanation. The second, no one seems to know much about. It involved a woman's NGO and whatever they were doing at Sukuna Park must have passed off uneventfully. But the third NGO “march” organized by the People's Community Network (PCN) resulted in 200 people, singing the national anthem, and dressed in “Just Peace. Just Wages for All” T-shirts on the way to make their submission to the Constitution Commission in the Parliamentary complex.
All seems to have gone well but on Saturday afternoon four police officers called at Fr Kevin Barr's house in Wailloku and asked him to accompany them to the police station. He refused to do so until he was informed of the reason. They seemed unsure, but he finally drove his own car to the police with one police officer in the passenger seat and the others in escort. (See also "Another Account", below.)
This is when all hell broke loose. Someone must have let the cat out of the bag but in no time at all rumours were circulating of Fr Barr's “arrest.” The less sensational of the overseas anti-Bainimarama blogs Fiji Today, asked “Is it true Father Barr is now in a police cell?' A police spokesman said the ECREA march was considered a “national threat” but did not say why.
It transpires the police thought Fr Barr had organized the ECREA march that was abandoned. They said he had applied for the permit on behalf of ECREA which he denied. It should have been easy enough to see if his name was on the permit application. Had they done so they would have saved a trip to Wailoku and Fr Barr a trip to town. They questioned him about the “Peace Day” activities of the women's group at Sukuna Park, about which he knew nothing, and about the PCN activities in the Parliament Complex. They seemed to be especially interested in the presence of CCF's Rev Akuila Yabaki and trade unionists Felix Anthony and Rajeshwar Singh, although neither was breaking the law by attending a function for which a permit had been obtained. Fr Barr made a statement and was then permitted to leave, less than two hours after he had arrived. The police are apparently seeking the unionists for questioning.
Sharon Smith-John was assured by the police they only wished to question him about the permit he had applied for but their initial questions were about the permit he did not apply for, and the structure of their questioning suggests they were not entirely sure what it was they really wanted. If this was the case, it would seem the police did not initiate the enquiry which was probably prompted by a complaint from somewhere else in Government. We shall never know but the whole sorry incident, and that concerning Daniel Urai, is indicative of more than a breakdown in communications, although this, and police ineptness, most certainly also played a part.
They are the acts of a government lacking in confidence. It would seem that rather than risk anyone, even people generally supportive of their aims, saying anything which questions their activities, they act to close down freedom of assembly and freedom of speech outside the the narrow confines of the Constitution Commission.
One would have expected once PER was lifted that an “atmosphere” conducive to free and open discussion would have developed but this has generally not been the case. Government, and indeed all who which to see the Constitution Dialogue Process proceed, are aware that some people and organizations seek to derail the Process. They make no secret of it. I see no reason why they should not be closely watched. But to impute the good motives of the Rev Akuila Yabaki and Fr Kevin Barr seems close to paranoia. One person assured me Fr Barr had not been treated badly by the police, and I'm sure this is is so. But his temporary detention was surely unnecessary.
Government needs to relax just a little. It would do the PM and the Attorney-General a world of good to take an hour out to practice throwing an oval ball around Albert Park. Tense nerves cause fumbles — and do not make for wise decisions.
-- Crosbie Walsh
About 4.15 on Saturday afternoon (22nd September) Fr Kevin Barr was taking a rest at home after conducting a workshop for the Tamavua community on the Constitutional process. He was told that four policemen were waiting to see him. He greeted them and invited them in. He was then told that he was required to accompany them to the Central Police station to answer questions concerning the violation of conditions relating to the last minute cancellation of a permit to hold a peaceful march on Friday for the International Day of Peace. The priest said he was resting in preparation for Sunday but would come to the police station on Monday to answer any questions.
He was told that he was required to come at once. He responded that he would come if the police could tell him clearly what the accusations were and who had made them. The officer then called his superior and Fr Barr repeated that he needed to know what the accusations were and who had made them. The superior officer said there had been an anauthorised meeting in the Peace Park to which Fr Barr responded that the meeting at the Peace Park was organised by some Women’s group and he had no information to offer about it. The superior officer then said that Fr Barr was to accompany his officers to the police station to answer questions after which he could return home but if he refused he could be arrested.
To avoid any further trouble the priest agreed to accompany the four policemen to the Central police station. He was also informed that the police were looking for others who would also be called in to answer questions – Rev Akula Yabaki, Mr Felix Anthony, Mr Rajeshwa Singh, Mr Sirino from ECREA and Mr Semiti Qalowasa.
Arriving at the Cental Police Station the priest was taken to a CID office and met by an officer and Arietta (who was deputed to take down his statement). He was asked if he knew why he was brought in for questioning. He replied he was somewhat confused because he had not applied for the permit to march and was not involved in any meeting at the Peace Garden. Moreover he was not told what accusations were made against him and who had made them. The officer said there seem to be some confusion and misunderstandings but requested him just to make a statement about what occurred on the previous day. This he did explaining that EREA had applied for a permit to march. It was granted and the people had got prepared to march from the flea Market to Sukuna Park. The permit was cancelled at the last moment so ECREA arranged with City Council for the people to meet at the lower auditorium of the Civic Centre. The people had already gathered there when a policeman in plain clothes arrived with a written copy of the cancellation of the permit to march. Surprisingly it also contained the direction that the people were not to meet in another location. When questioned about this the policeman said the Director of ECREA could phone the Commisssioner Southern and provided his name and phone number. The Director of ECREA requested Fr Barr to call as he was the President of the Wailoku Crime Committee and known to the Commissioner. So Fr Barr phoned the Commissioner Southern and explained the situation. The Commissioner said he would return the call in a couple of minutes. He kindly did so and gave permission to go ahead with the meeting at the Civic Centre.
At the meeting four speeches were given (Rev Akuila Yabaki, Fr Kevin Barr, Felix Anthony and an elderly Fijian man from one of the communities). All speeches were on the International Day of peace and linked peace with Justice and justice with poverty and just wages.
Then, as arranged previously with the Constitutional Commission Committee, buses were sent to pick up the people from the Civic Centre and bring them to the Parliamentary complex. The people then proceeded in a peaceful, orderly fashion from the gates of Parliament in Battery Rd to the tent prepared for them on the lawn near Parliament. As they walked down the road they sang the National Anthem and held their banners connected with issues they had raise in their submissions. They were greeted by the members of the Constitutional Commission. Professor Yash Ghai gave an opening speech of welcome and Fr Barr was asked to say a few words explaining that this was the people’s creative way of making their submissions. Savu from the People’s Community Network then presented the 200 submissions from the communities and Semiti Qalowasa explained how the submissions had been drawn up by the people and collected from the communities. A final word of thanks was given by Professor Yash Ghai and all present were invited to refreshments. After this everyone dispersed in a peaceful, orderly fashion.
It seems that some unnamed person or persons have caused confusion and misunderstanding and used their personal animosities to try to intimidate those who planned peace activities on the International Day of Peace which were organised to reach their climax with the presentation of 200 submissions to the Constitutional Commission. It was a creative avenue which the Constitutional Commission had publicly encouraged. The media perhaps also caused some of the confusion by associating Fr Barr with ECREA and failing to note that most of the people’s submissions came from the People’s Community Network (not ECREA). Further confusion was added when another gathering at the Peace Park by a Women’s group was assumed by someone to be part of ECREA’s group.