July 31, 2012

Former Fiji PM guilty of corruption

Last updated 16:15 31/07/2012

Fiji's last democratically elected Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase has been found guilty of corruption by a judge in the High Court, Suva. He now faces a jail term.

The finding by Justice Priyantha Fernando comes less than a day after Australia and New Zealand announced an easing of sanctions on Fiji, saying the military regime of Voreqe Bainimarama is moving toward democracy.

A three person assessor’s panel yesterday returned a guilty verdict, but it could have been over-ruled by the judge.

State radio said Justice Fernando, was still delivering his verdict on nine charges against him while he was the director of Fijian Holdings Limited, an investment company whose shareholders are legally restricted to indigenous Fijians.

Earlier when addressing assessors, Justice Fernando said Qarase was the financial advisor to the now abolished Great Council of Chiefs.

Qarase is charged with six counts of abuse of office and three counts of discharge of duty with respect to a property in which he has a private interest.

Numerous international critics including the Commonwealth and the Pacific Forum claim Fiji’s country system is controlled by the military regime and has no independence.

A former senator, Qarase was first appointed by Bainimarama as a caretaker prime minister in the wake of the 2000 George Speight coup.

When Qarase stayed on in office and won an election in 2001, Bainimarama took strong exception to him.

He claimed Qarase was an “ethno-nationalist” and was dividing the country. Bainimarama threatened several coups against him and finally staged it in late 2006.

After being convicted a grim faced Qarase, 71, was granted bail ahead of sentencing tomorrow.

Yesterday New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully confirmed after a meeting with his Australian and Fijian counterparts that New Zealand would reappoint a high commissioner to Fiji and relax travel sanctions affecting members of its government. He would also ask Cabinet to consider dropping the long-standing sporting sanctions.

The meeting in Sydney yesterday built on the Pacific Islands Forum ministerial contact group's recent visit to Fiji, attended by Mr McCully, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and hosted by Fijian Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.

Fiji has committed to democratic elections in 2014 and Mr McCully said the change to travel sanctions would ease that process.

"They have consistently pointed to the fact the travel sanctions are a major obstacle to them getting some able people to serve in the government as permanent secretaries or minister, yet those are desirable developments to take place in the context of their step toward elections. So we've said we will have a more flexible approach to the sanctions regime but we won't be actually changing the sanctions themselves, just give more room for exemptions."

He also indicated New Zealand would look again at sporting sanctions and would be more flexible about removing people from the banned list.

"In fact, I've been giving a large number of exemptions, so the practical impact of that policy has been not too much different from Australia."

The sanctions were put in place after a military coup led by Frank Bainimarama in 2006. They prevent members of the self-appointed government and their families, as well as sports teams, from travelling to New Zealand.

McCully said New Zealand's sanctions were more stringent than Australia's and the changes would bring the two in line.

Improvements had been made in Fiji but there were still concerns about human rights, media freedom and progress on holding democratic elections.

It would take some time to appoint a high commissioner and Mr McCully said he did not have anyone in mind.

The Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry has a team of four based in Suva but there has not been a high commissioner since Michael Green was expelled in 2007; his successor, acting high commissioner Caroline McDonald, was expelled a year later; and acting deputy high commissioner Todd Cleaver in 2009.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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