Fiji bought time to deport USP vice-chancellor and his wife

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Pal Ahluwalia IB
Professor Pal Ahluwalia ... Fiji got wind of USP's proposed contract amendment when it featured on the USP Council agenda. Image: Islands Business

By Samisoni Pareti in Suva

Documents tabled at last week’s special council meeting of the University of the South Pacific suggest that plans to amend the contract of the university’s vice-chancellor and president, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, prompted his forced deportation and that of his wife by Fiji government authorities on Thursday.

Nauru President Lionel Aingimea, who is the council’s interim chair, had authored the proposed amendment to Professor Ahluwalia’s contract.

But Fiji got wind of the proposed amendment when it featured on the agenda of the council’s virtual meeting on Friday, January 29.

The council could not deliberate on the amendment at that meeting, however, as the head of Fiji’s delegation, Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum called for a one-week postponement.

He said Fiji was in a state of emergency due to the then-approaching Tropical Cyclone Ana, and the meeting should be adjourned for a week. In the period between meetings, the government deported Professor Ahluwalia and his wife, Sandra Price.

In so doing, Fiji triggered what President Aingimea had wanted to avoid: the cancellation of the vice-chancellor’s contract the moment the Fijian government revoked his work permit.

In his paper to the USP Council, the Nauru President drew its attention to the urgent need to amend the work contract of the VCP, de-linking the work contract to that of his work permit.

Spooked by a news article
He was spooked – it now appears –by a brief article in the Fiji Sun newspaper, which is strongly supportive of the Fiji government, published on January 24 which had speculated about the expiry of the work permit of a “foreign head of a big school” in Fiji, adding that his “days may be numbered”.

“It is not reasonable that a decision by [USP] Council on the employment of the VCP should be able to be overturned at the behest of a single member country,” wrote President Aingimea in a paper to the council.

As chair of the subcommittee formed by the USP Council on Friday to look into the changes to the VCP’s contract, it seems likely that President Aingimea’s paper will inform their work.

The Nauruan leader’s paper recommended the removal of specific mention of Fiji in two clauses of the VCP’s work contract, replacing it with “at least one of the member countries of the university.”.

One clause concerns obtaining a work permit as well as residency, while the other amendment centres around police clearance.

“There are two issues that would cause the VCP’s contract to fail as currently drafted,” wrote President Aingimea.

“The first is cancellation/non renewal of his residency and work rights in Fiji, and the second is failing to get a police clearance for whatever reason.”

Proposed amendments
“To change these, the proposed amendment was that the VCP must “obtain a work permit and the university is obligated to obtain (and maintain) a permit to employ him”.

He added that it would be a failure of the university’s duty to the VCP if the maintenance of his work permit were not supported.

Friday’s USP Council meeting ran out of time and was unable to decide on the amendments to VCP Ahluwalia’s contract.

His work contract remains void, and while he and Sandra Price undergo the compulsory 14-day quarantine requirements in a hotel in Brisbane, Australia, USP’s deputy vice chancellor, Dr Giulio Masasso Tu’ikolongahau Paunga will act as VCP.

Professor Ahluwalia and Price were deported after the Fiji government claimed they had both breached the Immigration Act, although no specific details of what those alleged breaches are, have been revealed.

The council will next meet on February 16.

Samisoni Pareti is a media consultant and managing director of Islands Business. This article is republished from Islands Business with permission.

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