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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (January 17, 2001 – Agence France-Presse)---Top British legal guns, including a Queen's Counsel who defended Chilean dictator Augusto Pincohet, have been hired by Fiji's military backed government to defend its legitimacy in the Pacific nation's courts, legal sources confirmed Wednesday.

Fiji Attorney General Alipate Qetaki said the state had set aside F$ 200,000 (US$ 100,000) to fund the initial round of their court battle over the constitution, although ironically they have said this week they are not likely to take any notice of any judgment.

The government has refused to pay for legal help to prosecute coup plotters and that case is in serious strife. Diplomatic efforts are under way to get New Zealand police evidence experts in to help.

On May 19 businessman George Speight and others attacked Parliament and held Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his government hostage for 56 days. On May 29 the Fiji Military Forces dumped the constitution and declared martial law. Later it appointed an interim government led by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

Speight and others have been detained on Nukulau Island since their arrest on July 26 and are next due before Chief Magistrate Salesi Temo on January 26 for mention prior to a committal hearing beginning late next month.

A sugar cane farmer, Chandrika Prasad, last year won a legal action when High Court Justice Tony Gates ruled that the constitution had not been abrogated and that the deposed President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, was still head of state.

The Qarase government took Gates’ ruling to the Court of Appeal and has retained top QCs from Britain and New Zealand.

The two from Britain are Claire Montgomery and Nicholas Blake.

Montgomery was a legal figure during the Pinochet saga when the former Chilean leader was arrested in Britain pending extradition to Spain on human rights charges. The British Government eventually let Pinochet return to Chile on health grounds.

Blake is well known for judicial review cases and asylum and immigration in England.

Also acting for the government is New Zealander Tony Molloy, who is a specialist in banking and tax law and a leading expert in the Catholic Church's Ecclesiastical Courts. In 1998 he wrote "Thirty Pieces of Silver" in which he attacked New Zealand's leading legal firm for unethical behavior.

Molloy was arguing procedural issues this week before Appeal Court chair Sir Maurice Casey from New Zealand and the full case is due to be argued late next month.

Qetaki told the Fiji Times the government did not want local lawyers.

"We considered its sensitivity, the issue surrounding it and we agreed that we either handle it internally and if we need outside assistance it would have to come from outside the country,'' he said.

"We considered factors like leaked information, which happens a lot locally, and how recent events have affected all of us in some way. So we sought the overseas counsel.''

But Luke Ratuvuki, a former permanent secretary to President Josefa Iloilo, told Suva media they would disregard the Gates rulings, as the most important issue remained law and order.

He said if the Gates judgment is upheld by the Appeal Court there would be bloodshed. "This what the president does not want and that is why Justice Gates' ruling has become secondary to peace and order."

He said Fiji wanted the same system as Singapore, where order came first and the law second to maintaining peace among Malays, Indians and Chinese.

The Speight treason case initially saw New Zealand QC Gerard McCoy acting for the state's Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), but the Fiji government has declined to pay for the legal services and now numerous procedural inadequacies threaten to wreck the Speight case. The state has 177 witnesses whose written statements were only handed to the DPP last week by a special 10 man police "Treason Squad."

A legal source said many of the statements were "in an appalling state" and cannot stand up in court.

The DPP's office, which has statutory independence, is privately appealing for police evidence specialists from the New Zealand police force to help bail them out.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail:  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: 

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