With his i’Taukei mother and Indo-Fijian father, Ben Padarath ought to be a poster boy for the new multiracial Fiji. Yet instead of being a standard bearer for greatness, Ben has grown up the classic naughty boy – a 42-year old still behaving like a juvenile delinquent and every parent’s nightmare. Each opportunity he gets he seems to blow, whether it’s his forays into business, into politics and even nights out on the town. He killed a girl called Julia Stark in a drink driving accident that earned him a prison term for manslaughter. Later, he earned himself a severe beating and a stretch in hospital for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Government and selling access to the Prime Minister. And as the bizarre events of the past couple of days have shown, he’s even a failure as a stowaway, his alleged attempt to evade his latest brush with the law ending in ignominy on the Lautoka waterfront.
Benjamin Wainoqolo Padarath was wearing a Fiji Ports Authority uniform when he was caught allegedly trying to board a container vessel bound for New Caledonia and Australia. The Lautoka police say a “suspicious character” was spotted moving inside the vessel (sound like Ben?) and security personnel intercepted him. He was found to be carrying $3000 in cash, a chocolate bar, some biscuits and a bottle of water. Quite how long he thought that would sustain him at sea isn’t clear, let alone how far it would get him in Noumea or Sydney. But Ben is nothing if not optimistic and such a mundane consideration may not have entered his mind. He seems to have been following in the footsteps of that other famous fugitive from Fijian justice – the Australian conman Peter Foster – except that Foster arranged his own means of transport and got away. Poor Ben. Another failure.
He appears to have surrendered without a struggle and has since appeared in court in Lautoka on a charge of attempting to stow away on a ship. A much bigger problem awaits him in Suva because he failed to turn up for a court hearing there on a charge of giving false information to a public servant. The presiding magistrate issued a bench warrant for his arrest. For anyone else, the notion of slipping onto a ship in Lautoka when you’re supposed to have appeared before the bench in Suva would surely prompt a second thought. The authorities take this stuff pretty seriously so what happens next is unlikely to be pleasant. Yet for Ben, being declared a wanted man seems to come naturally. The roller coaster of rooster one day, feather duster the next has become the central narrative of his life.
Ben was born in 1970, the year of Fiji’s independence, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that his upbringing reflects much of the turbulent nature of the country’s development. His family life was different to most – a multiracial, multicultural household of an Indo-Fijian father and an indigenous mother. So Ben has always enjoyed the distinct advantage of speaking both Hindi and i’Taukei, as well as what he describes on his Facebook page as “American English”. He’ll doubtless be saying “Howdy Doody” to quite a few officers of the law in the coming days and weeks.
Politics is in Ben’s blood. His mother, Lavenia Padarath, is the well-known Labour Party politician and was Minister for Women in the Chaudhry government that George Speight removed at gunpoint in 2000. She was held hostage with her colleagues at the parliamentary complex but was released with three other woman five weeks into the 56-day siege. Her son’s antics over the years can only have added to the trauma of that terrible event. Certainly, Ben has hardly been the model son. God knows what Lavenia must have endured because of his many “exploits” over the years. Because with Ben, it’s been one crisis after another, a yo-yo back and forth between rooster and feather duster. In polite circles nowadays, the guy is regarded as trouble with a capital T.
One night in May 2003, Ben Padarath drove off from a Suva nightclub in the company of Charlotte Peters – the journalist who is now his wife – and two other women, Arieta Bulewa and Julia Stark. He got as far as the Prouds Triangle before he stopped the car and he and Peters got out and had a heated argument. When a passing police vehicle pulled up, they returned to the car and Ben resisted police attempts to get him back out. He suddenly took off at high speed, charging through two red lights. The police gave chase at up to 100 kilometres an hour along Victoria Parade but were unable to catch up. Soon afterwards, Ben crashed into a coconut tree opposite the Chinese Embassy on Queen Elizabeth Drive with such force that the car was torn in half. Arieta Bulewa and Julia Stark were found unconscious on the footpath. Stark died three days later while Bulewa spent more than a month in hospital. A feather duster moment if every there was one.
Yet three years later, in May 2006, it was rooster time when Ben stood for parliament in the election of that year as a candidate for Ratu Epeli Ganilau’s National Alliance Party (NAPF). He polled 681 votes in the Lami Open Constituency – just under 5 percent of the total. So we know that 681 people were prepared to turn a blind eye to Ben’s accident-prone ways and have their interests represented by this would-be politician. But there’d been a major hiccup during the campaign, a very public spat between mother and son. The long suffering Lavenia was appalled when Ben – her half Indo-Fijian son – made a speech calling for political power in Fiji to remain with the i’Taukei.
Mrs Padarath described her son’s comments as “racist, unnecessary, unwarranted, and contrary to the way he’d been brought up”. Ratu Epeli also disavowed the remarks, saying they were Ben’s personal opinion and not those of the party. But was Ben chastened? Not on your nelly. He went on the offensive, saying that with an Indian father and an indigenous Fijian mother, there was no way that he could be labeled racist. He just thought that for the sake of political and economic stability, it was best for political power to remain in indigenous hands. His mother – an i’Taukei herself but a committed supporter of multiracialism- was doubly appalled. But worse was to come.
Soon after the election, Ben Padarath went on trial for the manslaughter of Julia Stark three years before. And in August 2006, Justice Nazhat Shameem sentenced him to two years imprisonment for causing death by careless driving. He was also fined F$2000 and was disqualified from driving for three years. Ben’s lawyer asked the Judge to consider his client’s epilepsy, which he said required daily medication. But Justice Shameem ruled that he was a danger to the public and needed to be imprisoned. In the event, he spent ten months in Korovou Prison before being released to serve the remainder of his sentence extramurally while doing community work at a local church. It was June 2007.
By now, of course, Frank Bainimarama had staged his 2006 coup and Fiji had been placed on a radically different path. Anyone else who’d gone to jail in the circumstances that Ben had might have emerged after a period of reflection resolved to finally keep his nose clean. But reflection and self-awareness don’t seem to be his strongest points. Instead of turning his life around and putting the gruesome past behind him, things just seem to have got worse.
Last year, Ben was allegedly involved in a failed plot to overthrow Frank Bainimarama after certain papers were found at his Suva home. Then he was involved in a shadowy episode involving the Suva lawyer, Renee Lal, and an African immigrant businessman, Paul Freeman. There were allegations of money being extracted from Freeman for introductions to the Prime Minister and fabricated stories about contributions to the PM’s Christmas expenses. When the relationship between the three soured – it’s alleged – Ben Padarath tried to get Freeman placed on the Immigration Department Watch List by falsely accusing him of being HIV Positive. Ben and Renee Lal were taken into custody by a military enraged that they’d exposed the Prime Minister to the appearance of being corrupt. Both were allegedly beaten to the point of requiring medical treatment and Ben Padarath later appeared in public in a wheelchair.
In April, charges against Ben relating to the concealment of false government documents were dismissed but he still faces the false information charge relating to the Freeman affair. He is alleged to have given information he knew to be false via text messages to the Director of Immigration Fiji, Namani Vuiwaqa, in January last year. When he didn’t appear in court on Monday, his lawyer said that it was because his father had had a heart attack a month before. The Magistrate didn’t buy it. But by then, Ben was allegedly intent on slipping onto a ship that he hoped would carry him across the horizon and leave his troubles behind him.
Poor Ben. It’s only a matter of weeks since he appeared in the New York Times displaying the scars he received the last time he was in custody. He was cast – and undoubtedly cast himself – as a victim of the “torture” inflicted on opponents of the regime. Yet without excusing what happened, there can be few people in Suva who don’t think that most of Ben’s problems have been self-inflicted. What drives him seems to be a classic combination of unbridled confidence in his own ability, a plausible manner that inspires confidence in others and a rat-like cunning to make the most of any opportunity. All characteristics, of course, of the successful politician he might have been but also the mark of a conman.
Intriguingly, Ben’s Facebook page lists “Criminal Minds” among his favourite TV programs and The Bible among his favourite books. Perhaps it’s just as well that where he’s going in the coming days, he’s bound to be doing a lot more reading than watching TV. As Ben says about himself on Facebook: : “What you see is what you get. Nothing less, nothing more.” And his favourite quotation? “Better to be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not”. Mmm. One for the armchair psychiatrist to ponder.