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Bainimarama urged to have Finance minister step down

By Robert Matau and Unaisi Ratubalavu

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, March 6, 2008) – The Fiji Military Council has advised the interim Prime Minister to ask his Finance Minister to step aside while a full-scale independent inquiry into his personal tax affairs gets underway.

The members of the council presented the submission to Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama at a meeting this week, military spokesman Lt-Col Sitiveni Qiliho confirmed.

He declined to divulge more details on the submission except to say that they would accept whatever decision Commodore Bainimarama made. "That is a matter between the Prime Minister and Mr Chaudhry and whatever decision he makes we will accept that," he said yesterday.

When contacted yesterday for a comment, Commodore Bainimarama said that whatever he needed to tell Mahendra Chaudhry was between him and his minister.

"The issue with Mr Chaudhry is just between him and myself and no one else," he said. "When I am ready to tell the people of this nation, then I will do so."

A source said the council met with its commander on Monday at Government Buildings to discuss Mr Chaudhry's tax matters.

"When we met, we told the Commander that it is wise for the minister to step aside for transparency sake and in the best interest of the nation," the source said. "It is also under the PSC rules, that if someone is implicated, then they should step aside for an investigation to be carried out. We told the PM that this is the best thing to do."

Another source said Commodore Bainimarama was supposed to have written to Mr Chaudhry, asking him to step aside so that the allegations against him could be investigated.

This newspaper revealed last month that Mr Chaudhry was the minister at the centre of allegations of not having declared or paid taxes on an alleged amount of AU$1.6 million held in overseas bank and investment accounts.

Commodore Bainimarama had said that he directed Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority to investigate the allegations when they first surfaced last year.

He said FIRCA cleared Mr Chaudhry of any wrongdoing. He said Mr Chaudhry had also invited him to take the necessary action to examine the allegations and make the findings public.

When asked whether he would take up Mr Chaudhry's offer, Commodore Bainimarama told a press conference he would decide on that later. Yesterday, Mr Chaudhry declined to comment on the issue. Permanent Secretary in the PM's Office Parmesh Chand neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a letter written by Commodore Bainimarama to Mr Chaudhry, saying he had no authority over the matter.

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