SECURITY MAIN CONCERN FOR FIJI MILITARY, COURT HEARS

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By Margaret Wise

SUVA, Fiji Islands (Feb. 20, 2001 - The Fiji Times/PINA Nius Online)---National security will determine the Fiji military’s stand on any ruling made by the Court of Appeal.

In a fresh affidavit introduced by the State, military commander Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama said the military's stance would be dictated by the situation at the time.

The statement was outlined in a third affidavit by the commodore, part of which was used by counsel for the State Nicholas Blake in arguing that the interim administration was effectively in control of the country.

The introduction of this affidavit, however, drew some criticism from the lawyers representing farmer Chandrika Prasad, as they were not informed of its existence until early yesterday.

Fiji's interim government is appealing against a High Court ruling by Justice Anthony Gates that the 1997 constitution is still in force and the interim government is not legal.

The interim government was formed with the backing of the indigenous Fijian Great Council of Chiefs and Fiji Military Forces after widespread unrest and violence last year. It followed the Fiji Labour Party-led government – and Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister (Mahendra Chaudhry) - being taken hostage by indigenous Fijian rebels in a May 19 coup.

The takeover of parliament and hostage taking came amidst a protest march through Suva by indigenous Fijians, and was followed by looting and burning of Indian-owned businesses. The military on May 29 declared martial law to stop the growing deterioration in law and order.

Yesterday in the appeal court Commodore Bainimarama was rebutting claims by witnesses for Mr. Prasad that the military would support the formation of a government of national unity if the Gates ruling was upheld.

The commodore denied he would support a government of national unity and said he could not make a blind commitment to accept the ruling of the Court of Appeal.

He said he would judge the situation as it presented itself at the time the ruling is made.

The commodore's other affidavits recorded the chain of events leading to May 29, the day the Constitution was abrogated.

It also explained the military's position and involvement during the period of instability ‹ and the reasons why former president Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara was approached to step aside.

Expanding on the circumstances surrounding the abrogation, Mr. Blake said the commodore applied the "doctrine of necessity."

He said the situation was highly volatile and the options open for the military's involvement were limited by the Constitution.

Mr. Blake said after making references to the death of a policeman on the night of May 28 when rebels ran riot through the streets of Suva:

"In view of the circumstances prevailing at the time ... the Commissioner of Police assessed the police could no longer maintain law and order on its own, the defiance of decisions taken by the Great Council of Chiefs, the threat on the life of the President, and the continued threats by George Speight and his group ... and in the absence of any viable option, the commander assumed executive power. The whole nation was on the brink of anarchy."

He also told the court that Ratu Sir Kamisese told the commander he would not return if the Constitution was abrogated. Mr. Blake also told the court that the coup was the culmination of months of frustrations over insensitivity in addressing indigenous Fijian concerns.

Meantime, it was business as usual in Fiji yesterday, despite calls for workers to stay away from work and support calls for an immediate return to democracy.

Major garment factory owners reported a 100 percent turnout with absentees being staff who had worked through the weekend and were taking days off.

Fiji Chamber of Commerce President Natwarlal Vagh said chamber members had not received any reports of closure supporting the protest.

"I feel that all should be patient and accept whatever decision the courts make because it will be good for the country as whole," Mr. Vagh said.

"If all accept the decisions and we all got on with our lives, the business community will then be able to return to the pre-May 19 trading days."

Fiji Retailers Association President Himat Lodhia said staffs of retailers were given a choice but his members reported a good day.

"It was a normal Monday for us. Maybe there would be much less purchases but otherwise, everything else was good," he said.

Mr. Lodhia said it was reassuring that national security personnel visited shops throughout the day to see if retailers were "all right."

Fiji Employers Federation chief executive Ken Roberts said based on a survey of 196 of the federation’s members conducted yesterday, there was an "excellent turnout".

Mr. Roberts said of the 196 members, 191 reported a 100 per cent turnout.

Of the remaining five, one was closed for business with reasons unknown and another gave its staff a day off because they had worked last Friday, a public holiday.

Fiji First movement leader Mick Beddoes, who led the stay-at-home protest call, was at his office when contacted but denied his office was opened for business as usual.

"We are on a skeleton crew. We still have to transport tourists around. But otherwise, the rest of the staff were given a choice," said Mr. Beddoes, who runs a tourism company.

"I have never imposed my political beliefs on my staff. It was their choice. I am in the office only to reply to media questions."

For additional reports from the Fiji Times, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Fiji Times.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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