Fiji's former PM convicted on currency offences

Last updated 18:40 04/04/2014

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The only ethnic Indian to be prime minister of Fiji, Mahendra Chaudhry, has been knocked out of the country's democracy-restoring elections after being convicted on three currency-offence charges today.

Chaudhry, 72, who still leads the Indian-dominated Fiji Labour Party, was a strong contender in the elections in September.

In the High Court in Suva this afternoon Judge Paul Madigan convicted Chaudhry after four assessors earlier found him guilty. He remanded him on bail for sentencing on May 1

After military strongman Frank Bainimarama seized power in 2006 he sacked the then independent courts and replaced them with a judiciary criticised in international forums as not being independent.

Bainimarama last month issued an electoral decree setting up elections in September.

The decree says no-one can be a political candidate if they have been convicted of a charge carrying a sentence of 12 months or more in jail.

Chaudhry faces two years' jail or a fine up to four times the amount of money he was convicted of.

In this case he could be fined up to A$4.5 million (NZ$4.9m).

The charges against Chaudhry relate to the 2000 George Speight coup, during which he was held hostage, along with the rest of the government, for 56 days.

After release Bainimarama – who had declared martial law – would not let Chaudhry return to office.

Chaudhry went to India to raise funds to fight for his right to return to power.

The charges assessors have found him guilty of alleged that Chaudhry between November 2000 and July 2010 retained A$1.5m (NZ$1.6m) in Australia without the permission of the Reserve Bank of Fiji.

He was also found guilty of dealing in foreign currency without permission.

The third charge Chaudhry was found guilty of related to receiving money from financial institutions in Australia and New Zealand.

The prosecution presented only one witness at the trial and the defence did not produce any.

Chaudhry served as prime minister for exactly a year, being overthrown in the Speight coup on the first anniversary of his premiership.

Bainimarama has also avoided having to compete with the man he overthrew in 2006, then prime minister Laisenia Qarase.

In 2012 the Fiji courts sent Qarase to jail for a year over a charges said to be politically motivated and related to financial dealings before he entered politics.

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- Fairfax Media

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