Deportation of USP’s Vice Chancellor puts future of school in question

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Deportation of USP’s Vice Chancellor put doubt on the future of the university

By Kalafi Moala

Suva, Fiji – The mishandling, unjustified arrest, and deportation of USP’s Vice Chancellor, Canadian Professor Pal Ahluwalia, and his wife Sandra Price, have met with shock waves of reaction from Fiji and throughout the region. It was not only what Frank Bainimarama’s government did, but how they did it, that brought such disgust locally and internationally.

The independence of a regional academic institution has been under threat by a host country.

The professor and his wife were arrested at their home in Suva in the middle of the night, driven to Nadi International Airport where they were put in a room, without air conditioning or access to food from about 3.30am until they were deported on a morning flight to Brisbane, Australia.

Reactions ranged from condemnation of the “barbaric” and “shameful” detention and deportation, to expressions of being “shameful, outrageous and not the Pacific way.” A group of staff and students call it “barbaric treatment.”

The Union of USP staff issued a statement: “The manner in which the VCP and his wife were removed is a violation of human rights and due process. Given the seriousness of the decision, we demand the Fiji government… provide the justification for this Gestapo tactic.”

The accusation from government was they had violated the terms of their immigration work permit, but as most people know, Professor Pal was the whistle blower who exposed the corruption that have been going on at USP, among the academics and staff of the regional university in Suva, paying themselves millions of dollars in allowances they may not have been entitled to.

And this has been going on during the tenure of the previous Fijian Vice Chancellor Rajesh Chandra who is alleged to have also benefitted from the allowances.

Vice Chancellor Pal was described by the government as a “public risk” to justify their action. There have not been any response from the government of any details on how he was a “public risk.”

Professor Pal’s sin was telling the truth, and calling for change to take place at USP. A report after investigation of the university by New Zealand based consultant organization, BDO, confirmed most of the allegations by the professor.

Pacific member nations of USP, including Nauru, Samoa, Tonga, and New Zealand have expressed anger at the way USP staff have been helping themselves inappropriately to the funds of the university.

Most Tongan university graduates have been educated at USP, not only at undergraduate level but also at post graduate levels. It is still the main university level education provider for Tongan students, and that includes the campus in Tonga. But this is not the first time there have been trouble at USP of a kind that may affect negatively the future of university education for Tongan students.

Tonga is one of 12 member countries that own USP. A USP council meeting was to be held on Friday 5 January where Vice Chancellor was to be at, but he was deported on the previous morning. The USP Council which is the highest authority over USP, released a statement saying they were not consulted over Professor Pal Ahluwalia’s deportation.

Dr. Giulio Massaso Paunga of Tonga has been appointed acting Vice Chancellor following the deportation of Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

Paunga currently holds the position of Deputy VC Regional Campuses, Estates and Infrastructure.

It is reported Professor Pal Ahluwalia still holds the position of Vice Chancellor, and in the meantime will be based out of Nauru.

Victims describe what happened

A tweet message was sent out by Vice Chancellor Pal after the plane landed at Brisbane airport. The tweets were obviously from his wife: “While I sit here on the plane I would like to share my thoughts from last night. At around 11-11.30pm while sleeping, I heard a woman calling out Pal’s name inside our locked backyard. The back gate had been broken. She kept saying to go to the front door as security needed to see him urgently.”

“We both got out of bed and looked out of the window. The woman had 3-4 plain clothed men with her. Pal and I together went to the front door, hearing the doorbell being run constantly and banging on the door. We could see through the glass, another 2-3 men standing at the back door and at least 8-10 at the front door.”

“I quickly rang the deputy vice chancellor as he lives nearby. I then gave the phone to Pal. Upon seeing me on the phone, the immigration official ask someone to break down the door. Four men barged into the room and grab Pal heavy handedly taking the phone from his possession. I was unable to see if they were armed.” (Photos have consequently shown black bruises on Professor Pal’s arm.)

“The same immigration official produced a one page letter signed by Amelia Komaisavai stating that Pal ‘was a risk to the public’ and we had to pack 3 days of clothes and personal effects immediately. I was instructed to get dressed and they confiscated all electronic devices including our phones, iPads, laptops, watches and passports.”

“I was not left alone to change or even use the washroom. Where were my moral and human rights? As a staff member of FNU (Fiji National University), I have my own work visa. I informed them of that but they didn’t care. I still haven’t been allowed to contact my employer to inform them why I am not at work.”

The corruption at USP unveiled by Professor Pal Ahluwalia

The alleged corruption and irregularities concerning staff pay and allowances run into the millions of dollars. When Professor Pal took over USP on 1 November, 2018, he discovered the financial and salary irregularities.

He presented to the USP Council in a meeting in Vanuatu a paper titled: “Issues, concerns and breaches of past management and financial decisions.”

The Fiji Government and its appointees, which included Pro-Chancellor Winston Thompson, tried to attack Professor Pal, but other Pacific nations pressured Thomson to bring in an outside consultancy firm to investigate. BDO, was brought in to investigate and audit. They issued a 114-page repot on 21 August 2020 but was kept secret.

It has been reported that the BDO report has been seen by major donors, like Australia, and have suspended aid until “university is cleaned up.” The report also reveals how the Fiji Government has covertly tried to drive Professor Pal out of the country, by USP security staff raiding his home, and his credit cards taken.

Also obtained in the report is outraged correspondence from leaders of the 12 Pacific nations that own USP. Professor Pal Ahluwalia was born in Kenya but educated in Canada. He was appointed by the USP Council to be Vice Chancellor to replace Chandra. The report suggests that this was against the wishes of Thompson and the Fiji Government. Twenty five academics and USP staff were named by the report as being under BDO’s investigation.

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