AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL CONDEMNS FIJI’S FAILURE TO PROSECUTE COUP PLOTTERS

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By Michael Field

SUVA, Fiji Islands (May 19, 2001 - Agence France-Presse)---The human rights organization Amnesty International claimed Friday that extra-judicial killings occurred in Fiji following a coup a year ago and that hundreds of people responsible for racist violence had been freed unpunished.

"I know of two people who came out in body bags from the army barracks after being seen alive and well at a police station only hours before," Amnesty researcher Heinz Schurmann-Zeggel told a press conference here.

He said they appeared to amount to extra-judicial executions.

He said Amnesty was concerned about the large numbers of people who escaped justice following unrest here last year.

"Experience shows that sweeping past human rights abuses under the carpet will not lead to stability and security, and will fail to bring about a lasting peace both among and between ethnic groups."

Fiji Saturday marked a paradoxical anniversary; the May 19, 1999 election of its first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, and the May 19, 2000 coup in which failed businessman George Speight seized Parliament.

Amnesty Saturday laid a wreath at the site near Parliament where policeman Filipo Seavula was killed May 28 by gunmen believed linked to Speight. Police, who have still make no arrests in connection with that death or the related sacking of a television station, Thursday questioned an AFP reporter seeking evidence on identification of the killers.

The anniversary is being marked quietly with no obvious security measures in place.

Speight and 11 others are on May 29 due to face preliminary court proceedings on treason charges.

However, the case has been dogged by speculation that it will collapse due to a shortage of prosecution resources and a lack of political will to carry it out.

In a bizarre development Friday the Fiji Times revealed that the Director of the Public Prosecutions Office had made a mistake and handed over what was to have been incriminating television tapes by mistake to the Speight defense team. They have now declined to return it.

Elsewhere, 54 rebel soldiers who took over a military barracks last year were Thursday fined 10 Fiji (five US) dollars each on unlawful assembly charges.

Schurmann-Zeggel would not name names of people whom he believed should face justice.

"Those people . . .went out into rural areas and smashed homes of farmers. Or other people who were responsible for the apparent beating to death of soldiers following the second of November attempted mutiny last year."

These should be investigated, particularly the extra-judicial executions, he said.

"We are trying to talk to those who may have been eye witnesses and those who expressed concerns to our organization at the time. There were criminal suspects taken into custody who died from reasons still not explained."

Post-mortem reports have still not been made public.

He said Amnesty’s information was that last year a minimum of 1,500 people were arrested, primarily on charges related to anti-Indian violence.

"By the end of November nobody was still in detention or police custody. Only a few had been bought to court and less had been bought to justice….

"Not bringing clearly identified perpetrators of serious human rights violations to justices always catches up with the people, the country and the government years later…. It is to nobody’s advantage to let such people off the hook."

He said the court system was working on some cases, but not in others.

"Selectiveness, for example, in that the key figures that were publicly identified as coup perpetrators are in custody now and have their cases bought to the committal stage yet there are a number of people responsible for violence in rural areas who have gone free, or have been released after brief arrest."

Amnesty wanted all the figures involved to face justice but when pressed on identities, he declined.

"I am not going to name any names of people of whose names I have read in the papers here. Everybody knows their names, and I am not going to try and investigate their role in the coup. That’s not my function."

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/ 

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