The indefinite ban on entering Fiji placed on former Fiji citizens Professor Brij Vilash Lal and Dr Padma Lal makes a mockery of Fiji’s democracy and the conduct of government. It is undeniably a breach of fundamental rights of two former Fiji citzens who are banished from the land of their birth for defending democracy, justice and human rights.
Following the latest decision by Minister for Defence, National Security and Defence Timoci Natuva, which was conveyed this week to Professor Lal by Deputy Immigration Director Edward Brown – three months after they were asked to re-apply if they wished to have the ban uplifted, the National Federation Party, which had access to every correspondence between Professor Lal, Immigration and Mr Natuva, can categorically state with conclusive evidence, that the decision to indefinitely ban Professor Brj Lal and Dr Padma Lal was made by the Office of the Prime Minister – not Minister Natuva or the Director of Immigration.
This is proven beyond any reasonable doubt whatsoever after perusing media comments by Mr Natuva and email correspondence between Professor Lal and Mr Edward Brown (Deputy Director of Immigration).
Following Mr Natuva’s confirmation of the travel ban in Parliament on 18th March 2015 after being questioned by NFP Parliamentarian Hon Prem Singh, and in response to our media conference of 23rd March 2015, Mr Natuva, while responding to our statement confirmed through Fiji Village on 24th March “the decision to expel Professor Lal and Dr Lal was made after a directive from the Prime Minister’s Office to look into Professor Lal’s case”.
At the outset, while responding to Professor Lal’s application of 27th October 2014 for the ban to be uplifted following the successful conclusion of the general elections and the fact that travel ban on military officers as well as those who had accepted appointments in the regime following the December 2006 coup had been lifted by Australia and New Zealand, Mr Natuva said via email to Professor Lal on 24th November 2014, “I contacted Director Immigration and you are free to come to Fiji, however it is advisable that you contact the Director (Major Nemani Vuniwaqa) or Assistant Director (Edward Brown) on email for re-confirmation”. He provided Professor Lal with their email addresses.
Professor Lal then contacted Mr Edward Brown who on 15th December 2014 advised him:-
“The latest development into your case is that both you and your wife’s names are still appearing in our system and we have established that the instructions to put your names on our Controversial List had been given by the Prime Minister’s Office. As such we will be delivering a letter to that office tomorrow the 16th of December seeking their comments and endorsement that your names should no longer be on the list and that the both of you can now travel to Fiji.
Once we get a response from them we will then be in a position to advise you of whether you can travel to the country or not”.
Once again, it is abundantly clear that while Mr Natuva and the Immigration Department had no issues about Professor Lal and Dr Lal travelling to Fiji, they were powerless to lift the ban because instructions had come from the Prime Minister’s Office. The question then arises – who in the PM’s Office instructed Immigration to ensure the ban remained? Surely such a decision and that too a draconian one that overrides the authority of the Line Minister and the Immigration Department, cannot be made by a junior staff member!
Similarly, Mr Edward Brown informed Professor Lal via email in January and February this year that meetings were held on the issue but no decision had been reached. This is also confirmed from Mr Brown’s email to Professor Lal on 15th December 2014 when he says, “I will try and get a response from the PM’s Office as soon as I can and revert. I think it is best we get this clearance to avoid any unnecessary delays and attention when you do arrive”.
On 2nd April this year, following Mr Natuva’s comments that Professor Lal could re-apply, to have the ban lifted, both Professor Lal and Dr Lal duly did so. Fiji One News on 24th March reported Mr Natuva as saying that “in recent years 30 people staying abroad have been allowed back into the country after re-applying”. The applications are recommended by the Immigration Director to the line Minister”.
But this was not the case here. Can Mr Natuva as a matter of transparency and accountability inform the nation what was the recommendation of the Immigration Director? Given the evidence, the Immigration Department had no issues with Professor Lal.
Professor Lal was given 24 hours to leave Fiji in November 2009 after having been illegally arrested from his Suva Point Home and detained at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks for almost 3 hours. He was interrogated and subjected to verbal abuse by a senior military officer. He was told to leave Fiji within 24 hours otherwise his next trip to RFMF would have catastrophic consequences.
Professor Lal reluctantly left behind his wife Dr Padma Lal and departed for Australia the next day.
In January 2010, Dr Padma Lal was detained by authorities at Nadi Airport upon her arrival from Sydney. She had travelled to Australia for the festive season. At that time she was working for IUCN – an international organization looking at mangrove conservation and replanting in Fiji. She was detained overnight and forced to leave Fiji the next day.
Like many pro democracy activists, Professor Lal spoke in defence of democracy, freedom and human rights after the coup of December 2006. To say that he opposed moves towards restoration of democracy in Fiji is an insult to a person who is not only an eminent historian but was a member of Constitution Review Commission whose Report led to the formulation of the 1997 Constitution and ended Fiji’s isolation from the international community, particularly the Commonwealth.
It therefore is abundantly clear that Minister Natuva and the Immigration Department had no reason whatsoever to place Professor Lal and Dr Padma Lal on the list of persons banned from entering the country. But they were powerless to do anything as their names were contained in a list provided by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Therefore Minister Natuva’s answer in Parliament that the ban was in accordance with the Immigration Act of 2003 is baseless.
Even more insulting is the fact that Professor Lal, who was honoured by Fiji for his contribution to the country especially his work on the Constitution Review Commission, is perceived to be a threat to Fiji’s safety and security. For his work on the Reeves Commission, he was awarded the Order of Fiji. In June he was honoured with a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to education, through the preservation and teaching of Pacific history, as a scholar, author and commentator.
But the Fiji First Government is hounding him like a common criminal. This is insulting not only to Professor Lal and his wife, but to all right-thinking and law-abiding citizens and to the Indo-Fijian community whose historical background right from the days of indenture has been well researched and documented by Professor Lal.
Does it also mean that current and former Fiji citizens who are residing overseas who exercise their freedom of speech by making statements against the Government, will also be banned from entering Fiji?
Professor Lal and Dr Padma Lal have much to contribute towards the development of Fiji. The onus is on the Prime Minister to immediately rescind the ban to show that Government is a collective institution and not run on the whims of a few individuals.
Prof Biman Prasad