Civil society advocates condemn Fiji police ‘intimidation’ of USP students

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USP students for Pal
"We want VC Pal" and "Fiji needs good governance," say University of the South Pacific students supporting their suspended vice chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia. Students held rallies across campuses in the regional university's 12 member countries. Image: USPSA

Pacific Media Watch

Fiji’s NGO Coalition on Human Rights today condemned police for it called heavy-handed intimidation of students and staff at the regional University of the South Pacific, saying it was “deeply troubled” by the leadership saga.

“It is appalling to see the continued interventions and intimidation by the Fiji government and Fiji police at such a crucial time,” it said in a statement.

Police yesterday served a search warrant on The Fiji Times newspaper and confiscated at least three photographs of students protesting in support of their whistleblower vice-chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

READ MORE: Secret report reveals widespread salary and allowance rorts at USP

Fiji police search The Fiji Times, seeking photos to indentify student protesters. Image: FT screenshot/PMC

He was suspended by the USP Council executive committee on Monday in controversial circumstances.

“We strongly believe that a sustainable and working democracy must protect and ensure good governance, accountability and transparency at all levels,” said the coalition chair Nalini Singh.

“This has been incredibly lacking in the past few days, as we’ve seen the removal of USP vice-chancellor Professor Pal Aluwhalia and ongoing serious allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement.”

Peaceful protests and solidarity actions have been organised at campuses of the 12-nation university in Fiji and the Pacific in support of Professor Aluwhalia.

Students warned not to protest
Police have warned students against holding protests, said the USP Student Association.

Pal Ahluwalia
Suspended Professor Pal Ahluwalia … whistleblower at USP. Image: FBC News

“It is appalling to see police deny students and USP staff their fundamental right to freedoms of association and assembly,” said Singh.

“There is also concern on how this impacts on our regional relations as USP is a regional entity.

“This must be investigated by the relevant body without any heavy-handed intimidation from our government and the security forces.”

The coalition called on the Fiji government to “stop this harassment of USP students and staff” and ensure better accountability so that their grievances are met.

The police must also work within human rights standards, the coalition added.

In yesterday’s search of The Fiji Times, the warrant authorised of­fi­cers to ob­tain “video footage and pho­to­graph ar­ti­cles of USP staff and stu­dent protest dated 9 June 2020”.

Edi­tor-in-chief Fred Wes­ley said the news­pa­per was forced to hand over to po­lice three protest pho­to­graphs which were published in Wednesday’s news­pa­per.

He said other in­for­ma­tion re­quested by the po­lice re­lat­ing to the pho­to­graphs had been referred to the news­pa­per’s lawyers.

Forum chair says ‘work together’
Meanwhile, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIR) chair, Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano, today called on members to “work together, to chart a course forward” for the region’s premier tertiary education institution.

He said in a statement that USP was a “highly valued institution for educating the young minds of future leaders of our Blue Pacific”.

“As Pacific leaders and custodians of this vital institution of higher learning, we take pride in what the university stands for – a shining example of regionalism, and the benefits from pooling our collective resources for the betterment of our Pacific people,” Natano said.

He added that it was important to uphold the principles that bound the Pacific Islands Forum together – “good governance, respect, transparency, accountability and the rule of law”.

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