FIJI HIGH COURT DIRECTIVE BLOCKS SPEIGHT'S IMMUNITY DEFENSE

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By Matelita Ragogo © USP Journalism Programme

SUVA, Fiji Islands (September 4, 2000 – USP Journalism Programme/ Wansolwara/Pasifik Nius)---The issue of whether Fiji coup leader George Speight and his rebel group charged with treason are covered under the Immunity Decree 2000 for their rebellion has been referred to the High Court.

Justice Peter Surman has directed all magistrates’ courts in the country not to make any further orders relating to the immunity decree.

In a letter dated September 1, 2000, the judge said magistrates’ courts were to "refrain from making any further orders relating to the purported immunity of persons from prosecution in connection with the Immunity Decree or any related decrees."

Chief Magistrate Salesi Temo, who was expected to make a ruling today on whether the Immunity Decree was valid, said the directive was binding immediately.

He said he needed to refer the case to the High Court.

The 21 accused are charged with three counts of treason -- treason felony, conspiracy to commit treason felony, and misprision of treason.

Tension grew when prosecutor Robert Schuster introduced a new file with 13 charges for the 21 accused, including four men recently arrested, but separately remanded in state custody at Nabua Police Station.

Speight and the 16 other accused have been detained in a makeshift jail on Nukulau Island, off the coast near Suva.

Defense lawyer Rabo Matebalavu was angered when questioning the officers of the Director of Public Prosecution’s Office ("What is going on?’’), adding that the new file even had new dates.

Instead of charges laid for activities from May 19 as was stated in the previous charges, the new charges were dated from May 1, 2000.

"These charges are in a consolidated form. All previous charges have been amalgamated to one file for the High Court. I will dismiss the previous charges," Schuster said.

Temo then questioned Schuster about why the dates were different. He also asked why prosecutors did not know how many witnesses would testify for the state, adding "evidence must be found before charges are laid."

Matebalavu attacked Schuster, saying the latter should make his mind up which charges the defendants would be charged with.

"What is the intention of these changes? All we want to know is if the Immunity Decree is applicable or not. These further charges are misleading the court and constitute manufacturing of charges as we go along,'' Matebalavu said.

But Schuster said the DPP's office had the right to press charges when more evidence came up. He explained he did not know the number of witnesses that would appear as more evidence was being collected.

Although Schuster was adamant that the four new men charged with treason be remanded in Korovou Prison, as advised by Commissioner of Prisons Aisea Taoka because Nukulau was full, Temo ruled they be remanded at the Nabua Police Station.

Temo stressed the need for prosecutions to lay charges after all evidence was collected, reminding the court that the accused were presumed innocent until proven guilty and they were also entitled to a fair trial in a reasonable time.

The group will remain in custody and will now reappear on September 15.

Title -- 2944 FIJI: High Court directive blocks Speight's immunity defense Date -- 4 September 2000 Byline -- Matelita Ragogo Origin -- Pasifik Nius Source -- USP Journalism Programme/Wansolwara, 4/9/00 Copyright -- USP Journalism Status – Unabridged

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