Defence and witness clash over interpretation at former Fiji PM trial

The interpretation of a statement made by former Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama at a National Security Council meeting in 2020 came under scrutiny in court yesterday.

Defense counsel Devanesh Sharma challenged former Acting Police Commissioner Rusiate Tudravu’s interpretation of Bainimarama’s statement, questioning its directive to halt the investigation, while Tudravu insisted on his understanding, citing potential consequences for disobeying orders.

The comments in question was part of an exchange Tudravu had with Bainimarama, recorded in the minutes of a National Security Council meeting in September 2020, that was tendered into evidence during day three of the trial of Bainimarama and suspended Police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho in Suva yesterday.

Tudravu served as the Acting Commissioner of Police (ComPol) during Qiliho’s absence while he was on overseas study leave. Prior to this role, Tudravu held the position of Deputy Police Commissioner. He acted as the ComPol from August 2020 to August 2021. During his tenure as the acting ComPol, Tudravu attended the National Security Council (NSC) meetings, where Bainimarama presided as the chair.

Tudravu told the court that aside from security matters, he attended the meeting to clarify the government’s stance on the University of the South Pacific (USP) investigation and expressed concerns about potential security issues related to the unions and students.

The specific exchange relating to the USP investigation was read out in court by Tudravu which opened with him requesting Bainimarama to discuss some pending investigations and seek clarification on their stance regarding USP. The chair responded: “Oh I’ve suggested earlier to Tuks to stay away from the investigation.”

Tudravu told prosecution counsel and acting DPP David Toganivalu that he interpreted it as Bainimarama (NSC chair) having “already informed “Tuks” (Tuks is the name Qiliho is referred to by close army and police friends, derived from his middle name “Tukaituraga) to stay away from the investigation” adding “Stay away for me I interpret that just to mean just to stop the investigation.”

During the cross examination, questions were raised about the authority of the NSC Chairperson Bainimarama over police operations and investigations, to which Tudravu acknowledged that the Commissioner of Police holds the constitutional power and that the chairperson’s suggestions do not override this authority, however he said as acting ComPol, he had no right to “overrule” what he perceived to have been decided upon by Qiliho and Bainimarama.

Tudravu then pointed out the challenges of leadership in the environment, and the need to have the government’s input on important decisions. Sharma suggested that Tudravu’s statements are merely his own opinion. Tudravu countered saying that if he had halted the investigation, he would have completed his acting appointment “because what happened to me later. I disobeyed instructions, I was told to resign, so that could have happened that time.”

Sharma also questioned Tudravu about the directive he gave to former Police Chief of Intelligence ACP Biu Matavou after the NSC meeting and whether the investigation actually stopped as a result.

Tudravu admitted that he did not have specific knowledge of what happened to the investigation after he relayed the information to ACP Matavou. He mentioned that he was later asked to resign from his position, and he did not have any further information about the case.

The trial enters its fourth day today in Suva before Magistrates Seini Puamau.

The charges against Bainimarama and Qiliho pertain to allegations of obstructing police investigations into a complaint filed by USP regarding the activities of former USP staff members. The complaint was initially lodged with the police in 2019.Bainimarama specifically faces a charge of Attempting to Perver the Course of Justice. It is alleged that between July and September 2020 in Suva, he instructed the suspended Commissioner of Police, Sitiveni Qiliho, to refrain from involvement in the ongoing investigations concerning USP. On the other hand, Qiliho, who is charged with abuse of office, is accused of directing the Director of the Criminal Investigations Department at the time, Serupepeli Neiko, and another officer to terminate the investigation.

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