What Father Kevin Barr said in Court

  • 3rd May 2014
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Father Kevin Barr: Mahendra Chaudhry is someone …I have come to admire and would consider him a good friend.  I also see him as an inspiring person, an outstanding leader, a man of integrity and a fighter for social justice, true democracy and human rights… 

It is unfortunate that a Catholic priest’s honest opinion about the case against  Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry should fall foul of the Courts.

It gave Judge Madigan the excuse to disregard Father Kevin Barr’s entire testimony in which he spoke well of Mr Chaudhry.

The point being that Priests are known to be candid in their opinions and feelings, they are not driven by the intricacies of the Law Courts.  It was obvious that Father Barr’s testimony came from his heart and he expressed what he felt to be true. 

The following is his complete statement, followed by that of former Deputy Prime Minister Taufa Vakatale. Ratu Epeli Ganilau, former Commander of the Fiji Military Forces, also gave a character reference for Mr Chaudhry but he spoke extempore.  He said he got to know Mr Chaudhry well when he served in Cabinet with Mr Chaudhry in 2007/8: 

Ratu Epeli Ganilau

Overall I was impressed with his work ethics, humble personality and good character – strong, courageous who stands up to his principles”.  

Father Kevin Barr:   

Mr Mahendra Chaudhry is someone I have come to know over the 33 years I have been in Fiji.  He is someone I have come to admire and would consider him a good friend.  I also see him as an inspiring person, an outstanding leader, a man of integrity and a fighter for social justice, true democracy and human rights.

In my dealings with him I have found him to be a very honest and sincere person, very concerned for people of all races and religions and very strong in his support for the workers of the country.  He has shown real concern and compassion for the poorer section of the community (which makes up nearly 70% of the country).

He is a man of strong convictions and great courage.  With his strong Union background he is a fighter – fighting for social justice often against strong opposition.  Of course this has sometimes meant he has alienated some people and caused division among friends but that can sometimes be the price we pay for standing up for the principles we believe in.

As Prime Minister and Minister for Finance he showed not only great competence and wisdom but he was a hard worker beyond the call of duty (as I witnessed).  His record as Prime Minister and Minister for Finance was outstanding achieving an unprecedented growth rate of 9.6% in one year of office.

I recall the words of Rat Sir Kamisese Mara after Mr Chaudhry was put out of office in the coup of May 2000:

“I believe that if he had completed his term in office, he could prove to be one of the best Prime Ministers we have had up to this time.”

I always saw Mahend as an honest and upright man, a man of integrity and I would like to share a story which I had never shared with Mr Chaudhry.

One day (while Mahend was Prime Minister and Minister for Finance) I was having lunch with a prominent businessman in Suva. I could see that he was visibly upset and I asked him why? “It’s that blooming Chaudhry.  He doesn’t know how business is done in Fiji.   With other Finance Ministers you could make your request, pass something under the table and get what you wanted. But this Chaudhry won’t take anything under the table and wants everything on top of the table.  The man just doesn’t know how business is done in Fiji.”  I suggested that this showed his integrity and honesty but my friend insisted it was not the way business is done in Fiji.

I think that there is an important twist to that story and the reaction of that businessman.  The coup of May 2000 was initiated by George Speight BUT it was acknowledged that a number of business people financed the coup. Certainly it is on record that some media outlets owned by some business people continuously published anti-Chaudhry propaganda helping to incite a coup.

Calls were later made to the Qarase government to investigate those business people involved in Speight’s coup but this was never done.  Moreover an initial promise of this government to investigate those businessmen behind the coup was never honoured.  Why?

Of course we have many good and wonderful business people in Fiji but the business lobby in Fiji is very strong and would oppose anyone working for social justice for the welfare of workers in Fiji.  We only have to refer to the outstanding report of Professor Wadan Narsey – Just Wages in Fiji – to verify this.

It was in the interest of many strong voices in the business lobby to have Mr Chaudhry out of the way.  Yet those involved were never investigated for the role they played in the coup of 2000.   Why? It appears to me to be an absolute lack of justice that this was never done.

Unfortunately In very recent years we have seen a number of anti-union decrees, some unionists vilified and mistreated and the employer’s lobby have succeeded in keeping workers wages low.  So, as I said above, it is in the interest of some powerful business people to have Mr Chaudhry out of the way

Some see this current case against Mr Chaudhry as a sad attempt to discredit a great and honourable leader and a man of integrity for petty, vindictive reasons.  But that is for you to decide.

In conclusion I have another brief story to relate along  a different line.  Some years ago a plane crashed in Fiji on its way from Nausori to Nadi.  All passengers were killed. A memorial service was held at Sacred heart Cathedral and a large cross was set up in front of the altar with the names of all those who lost their lives listed on it.  At the conclusion of the service all the dignitaries (the diplomatic corps as well as our politicians) filed out and bowed to the Cross as they went.  One person, Mahendra Chaudhry broke ranks and went up clasped the cross in his arms and kissed it.  In doing so he embraced all those who had lost their lives. It was not a political gesture but came right from the heart. Everyone was touched by this genuine gesture of love and concern.)

That is all your Lordship.

  Ms Taufa Vakatale(Officer of the Order of Fiji):  

 I have known Mr. Mahendra Chaudhry since the early 70s when as a young Auditor with the Auditor General’s office, he would come in to the Adi Cakobau School to do annual auditing of our books.

He was always serious, meticulous and a conscientious worker. Soon after that he became a public figure as General Secretary of the Fiji Public Service Association, fighting for the rights of civil service workers and, subsequently, as the voice of the cane farmers.

In the mid-1980s, he entered politics as a founding member of the Fiji Labour Party. We became political rivals when I entered politics but I always respected his views and his commitment to the national cause.

I was appointed as a member of the Independent Inquiry into tax allegations against Mr Chaudhry in March 2008. The other two members were Australian consultants. I believe I was chosen because it was considered that I would be impartial and independent, irrespective of my personal views.  

As required by its terms of reference, the three member committee concluded that Mr Chaudhry was not guilty of any breach of the Exchange Control Act. According to the RBF officer in charge of Exchange Control at the time, Ms Shajehan Hussein, the RBF issued regular Guidelines and if transactions were within the guideline, then no approval would be required from the Minister of Finance or from the Reserve Bank which had the delegated authority from the Minister.

In our opinion  Mr Chaudhry did not violate the Exchange Control Act and the Committee so stated in its Report.

We did not interview Mr Chaudhry as he had agreed to make all his confidential financial documents available to us.

He had co-operated fully and promptly with issues raised earlier by FIRCA. The Inquiry Committee’s report was issued after close consultations with the senior executives of both FIRCA and RBF. 

In the years I have known Mr Chaudhry, I have always found him to be extremely professional, honest, forthright, and an effective leader.