Fiji’s military regime has arrested opposition leader and former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry for allegedly breaching public emergency regulations, reports said yesterday.
Chaudhry was taken into custody with five other people on Friday and was expected to face court today, state broadcaster Radio Fiji and the Fijivillage news Web site reported.
Fijivillage said Chaudhry was detained for allegedly holding public meetings, outlawed by the nation’s military regime under emergency laws that have been strongly criticized by international rights groups.
It said that police had not publicly revealed the charges against the Fiji Labour Party leader, but he was expected in court today. No one from the police was available to confirm the reports.
Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, who seized power in a 2006 coup, imposed emergency regulations that ban public meetings when he abrogated the Constitution in April last year.
Chaudhry became Fiji’s first ethnic Indian leader when elected prime minister in 1999. He was overthrown a year later in a coup led by nationalist George Speight.
He is one of the main opposition voices in Fiji, where the media are heavily censored and political parties cannot issue statements seen as destabilizing Bainimarama’s regime.
The Fiji Times said Chaudhry’s arrest followed a meeting with sugar farmers in Rakiraki. It said he denied any wrongdoing.
The sugar industry, once a mainstay of Fiji’s economy, is a sensitive topic for Bainimarama’s government after an attempt to modernize it with new crushing mills backfired and resulted in production collapsing.
Fiji Sugar Corp chief executive Deo Saran announced his resignation last week in the wake of a 175 million Fijian dollar (US$93 million) annual loss.
Chaudhry’s party was critical of the government’s role in the industry early last month, prompting the information ministry to accuse it of making “mischievous” statements and to demand all future statements on its Web site be submitted for official approval.
It later said the dispute had been resolved amicably, but nothing has been posted on the Web site since.
In July, Chaudhry appeared in court on a raft of charges unrelated to his latest alleged offense, including money laundering and tax evasion. The charges, dating back to just before the 2006 coup, alleged he held up to 400,000 Fijian dollars in an Australian bank account and made a 50,000 Fijian dollar payment to his daughter in Australia without following proper procedures.
Bainimarama defended moves to muzzle the media and opposition parties in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp in August, saying he could not introduce reforms necessary for democracy if he was being destabilized.
“This is not an ordinary government, we’re trying to bring about reforms and changes, and for that [it is] understood that at some stage we’ll need to shut some people up,” he said, adding important changes “will never happen if we open everything out to every Tom, Dick and Harry to have their say.”