August 06, 2012
Fiji's military government accused of stifiling opposition
Updated August 03, 2012 19:00:00
Fiji's military government has been accused of trying to repress opposition after the country's last democratically elected prime minsiter, Laisenia Qarase was given a one year jail sentence for corruption.
Lawyers for Mr Qarase, are expected to appeal the sentence.
TIM PALMER: Lawyers for Fiji's last democratically elected prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, are expected to appeal against the one year jail sentence he was handed in Suva's High Court today.
The 71-year-old leader of Fiji's indigenous SDL (Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua) Party was convicted earlier this week on nine corruption charges relating to offences which took place two decades ago.
The timing of the case has prompted accusations that the military government of Frank Bainimarama is intent on removing any opposition and silencing all critics ahead of democratic elections slated for 2014.
New Zealand correspondent Dominique Schwartz reports.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: Tears flowed amongst the family and friends of Laisenia Qarase as he was led from the courtroom after sentencing.
Fiji media reported that hundreds of supporters gathered outside the High Court despite restrictions on large public gatherings.
Qarase had faced a possible three year jail term for each of six counts of abuse of office, and six months for each of three charges dealing with his discharge of duty as a public servant.
The offences relate to share-trading and conflict of interest and date back to the 1990s when Qarase was a director of Fijian Holdings Limited and an advisor to the Fijian Affairs Board and the Great Council of Chiefs.
He went on to be elected prime minister in 2001 but was forced from office by Commodore Frank Bainimarama after the 2006 military coup.
PETER WILLIAMS: This has just been resurrected 20 years later. You'd wonder about the motivation.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: What do you believe the motivation is?
PETER WILLIAMS: Oh, I think it's political. I've got no doubt about that.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: Peter Williams is a New Zealand QC who has been something of a regular in Fijian courtrooms over the years.
He is currently representing another member of Qarase's SDL Party who's been accused of trying to overthrow the government.
PETER WILLIAMS: What was happening was the so-called interim government, is they're trying to suppress any opposition in these so-called elections that are coming up and they will put their own candidates up in due course and of course anyone standing against them will be harassed.
My client, Mere Samisoni, who was also a member of parliament, she's 74-years-of- age, she has been arrested in the street today. She just rang me and I spoke to the officer in charge, I said why are you arresting this woman?
He said oh I know it's illegal, he said, but I've been told to do it.
I said, well what's the reason? He said I've got no reason.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: And who told him to do that?
PETER WILLIAMS: He said oh my superior officer. And that's what is happening in Fiji right now.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: How independent is the judiciary in Fiji?
PETER WILLIAMS: I'm not prepared to comment on that. I must say myself, with my own personal experience, and I've had several cases there, I've got no complaint.
I think the judiciary is doing their best in their own way.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: So your beef is not with the judiciary as such?
PETER WILLIAMS: No, it's mostly the interim government that are controlling everything over there. It's like an octopus with tentacles. They control everything and now of course they want a new constitution with immunity for themselves.
And they want to be able to dominate the next elections and they're not prepared to give anyone who opposes them a fair go. It's as simple as that.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: Only this week, the foreign ministers of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji announced a stepping up of political relations.
High commissioners will be reinstated and some travel restrictions on civilian members of Fiji's interim regime will be relaxed on a case by case basis.
Peter Williams QC believes the governments of Australia and New Zealand should have made the concession only with a strict list of criteria attached.
PETER WILLIAMS: The interim government have got to agree to a set of measures which show that they are prepared to be fair and to be reasonable and to allow proper discussion, as in any other democratic country such as New Zealand or Australia.
We can criticise people. Over there, unless you agree with the government - beware.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: But Steven Ratuva, a lecturer in Pacific Studies at Auckland University, says moves by Australia and New Zealand are part of a much bigger power-play in the Pacific.
STEVEN RATUVA: There is a big political pressure from the United States for New Zealand and Australia to start engaging with Fiji because of the Chinese threat.
So it's a much bigger geopolitical and strategic issue as well.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: Laisenia Qarase's political party, the SDL, says it will continue its fight for democracy, even though its leader is likely to now be ineligible to stand in any elections.
Fiji's interim attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, told me his only comment was that the court's ruling speaks for itself.
This is Dominique Schwartz for PM.