FIJI'S COUP PLOTTERS BACK IN CAPITAL FOR FIRST STAGE OF TREASON TRIAL

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By Michael Field

SUVA, Fiji Islands (May 29, 2001 – Agence France-Presse)---A navy patrol boat brought Fiji coup plotter George Speight and his henchmen into the capital Suva early Tuesday ahead of the start of the torturous process of trying them on the capital offence of treason.

Twelve men, all accused of leading roles in an attack on Parliament and holding hostage for 56 days the government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, will appear before Chief Magistrate Sailesi Temo in a "preliminary inquiry."

The equivalent of a grand jury in the United States or deposition hearings in some Commonwealth jurisdictions, Temo alone, and often behind closed doors, will weigh up the evidence and decide whether it can go to the High Court and assessors.

Security in the capital was notably lighter than previously with only policemen at entrances to the Government Buildings and no signs of the soldiers who in the past controlled security.

The hearings were due to open later in the day with an address from Christchurch, New Zealand Queen's Counsel Gerard McCoy, whose fees are being paid by the New Zealand Government.

The hearing opens on the first anniversary of the day democracy died; on May 29 last year the military suspended the constitution and declared martial law. It will be held in what used to be the old Parliament where, in 1987, then military officer Sitiveni Rabuka staged his first coup.

It is expected to last up to four months.

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/ 

 

LEGAL SHOWDOWN BEGINS FOR FIJI’S COUP PLOTTER SPEIGHT

By Michael Field and Asha Lakhan

SUVA, Fiji Islands (May 28, 2001 – Agence France-Presse)---A year and 10 days after failed businessman George Speight and a gang of special forces soldiers seized Parliament and ended Fiji’s democracy the country’s court system will Tuesday begin the torturous process of trying him on the capital offence of treason.

Twelve men, all accused of leading roles in an attack on Parliament and holding hostage for 56 days the government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, will appear before Chief Magistrate Sailesi Temo in a "preliminary inquiry."

The equivalent of a grand jury in the United States or deposition hearings in some Commonwealth jurisdictions, Temo alone, and often behind closed doors, will weigh up the evidence and decide whether it can go to the High Court and assessors.

The eventual trial may also provide answers still unknown today; who really launched the coup, who financed it and what were its ultimate aims? Oddly it’s a question of serious debate as to whether it was a successful coup or not.

Certainly Chaudhry lost office and Speight got locked up but the current caretaker government of Laisenia Qarase espouses through its so-called blue print, the indigenous nationalist policy given as nationalist policy.

What is known is that it had very little to do with the ethnic Indians who make up around 44 percent of Fiji’s 800,000 people. Although espousing an indigenous nationalism cause Speight’s support came from some Fijian factions bitterly opposed to others. All but one of the 15 dead was indigenous.

The hearing opens on the first anniversary of the day democracy died; on May 29 last year the military suspended the constitution and declared martial law. It will be held in what used to be the old Parliament where, in 1987, then military officer Sitiveni Rabuka staged his first coup.

Sources close to the case have told AFP that the evidence, most of it self-incrimination from Speight at numerous press conferences, is overwhelming; but no one is expecting Speight to hang and convictions, if they come, may be several years down the track in what is doomed to be an interminable process.

And still untested is whether Speight and company have a legally binding immunity decreed after Speight on July 13 signed a deal with the military for giving up the hostages. Under that deal Speight was to give up all military arms but the state claimed he did not, negating the immunity and leading to his arrest on July 26.

That issue alone gives Speight’s legal term fertile grounds for appeal.

With around 240 witnesses and hours of video taped press conferences to read into evidence, the inquiry is expected to take up to four months -- spilling over into the late August general election that Speight has indicated he wants to stand in.

Since arrest the accused have been confined to tiny Nukulau Island, east of here, in a temporary prison camp. Ironically the first ship load of Indian contract laborers were also held on Nukulau in 1879. Up until November, when a military mutiny erupted, Speight and company were bought into Suva each fortnight for further remand hearings; since November the magistrate and the lawyers have made the 40 minute boat trip out to Nukulau.

The fate of the case rests with Temo, a Fijian lawyer who has a reputation for irritability and little patience with the state‘s office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). Last year the acting DPP, Joe Naguilevu, sought to have Temo excluded from hearing the case due to a family relationship with one of the charged men, Joji Bakoso who he released later, but Temo dismissed it.

When Speight was arrested 300 others were picked up on unlawful assembly charges. Last week Temo simply discharged all of them when two key military witnesses failed to show up.

Security is expected to be tight Tuesday morning with authorities here saying that they will ship Speight and company in daily on a naval vessel.

Local media are not allowed to publish evidence and authorities are strictly controlling international media access.

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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