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June 28, 2001

By Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D.

George Speight and his henchmen appeared for yet another court date on Monday, June 25, 2001.

Speight, a former Chairman of Fiji Hardwood Corporation, is charged with treason, following a 56-day armed siege at the Fiji Parliament last year. Joining him is his brother James Speight, an Australian citizen, who has bitterly complained about the lack of interest shown by the Australian Embassy in Suva on his plight.

The problem for the Speights is that no one in Fiji is prepared to represent them and assistance from friends in securing legal representation in the person of Navin Naidu was a total disaster.

After a much publicized trip to Fiji, Naidu, a self-proclaimed legal evangelist, promised to dazzle the locals with a trial of the century by calling some 300,000 witnesses in favor of Speight.

However, his plans were permanently put on hold after he was refused temporary admission to the Fiji Bar, following confirmation that his legal credentials from London University were forged. After spending time in police custody for fraud, Navin is out on bail, but those who he came to represent are still looking for legal representation.

Supporters and friends of the Speights are trying to secure the services of a law firm in Australia, but closer to home the actions of the Speights have left a severely damaged economy, rampant poverty, increasing crime, strained race relations and above all, ongoing rumors of mutiny or a coup.

On Thursday, June 21, the Fiji Military Forces (FMF) were placed on full alert and army commander Frank Bainimarama was whisked away to an undisclosed location for his safety, following intelligence reports on a possible armed insurrection.

The snail’s pace of the legal proceedings against Speight and the hunt for suitable legal appointees to the upcoming court martial hearing on the November 2, 2000 mutiny is taking its toll. Besides that, investigations into the overthrow of the Peoples’ Coalition Government have now widened with the implication of senior army officers, high chiefs and Indo-Fijian businessmen. While everything looks calm on the surface in Suva, there are factions within the army that may attempt to seize power in yet another bloody mutiny or a coup.

Of particular political importance is the Citizen’s Constitutional Forum (CCF) case against President Ratu Josefa Iloilo. This case has widened the rift within the legal fraternity, following a brief tussle between the CCF lawyers and the Chief Justice over a ‘suitable’ judge. At the center of controversy is Chief Justice Sir Timoci Tuivaqa, who is seen by members of the Fiji Law Society as being party to illegal decrees, following the declaration of martial law by the army on May 29, 2000. Not only that but behind the scenes attempts by Sir Tuivaqa to move the constitutional challenge filed by Chandrika Prasad from Lautoka to Suva, and attempts to ban lawyers critical of the judiciary from appearing in court have struck a raw nerve among many in the legal fraternity.

The prosecution, in particular, is concerned with the lack of security and the laxity with which treason proceedings are conducted by Magistrate Sailesi Temo, who is a relative of one of the individuals accused of participating in last year’s failed takeover.

During the court appearance of George Speight and his group on Monday, the accused remained defiant and requested further relaxation of visiting rights. Speight also threw a political punch by inviting the caretaker Prime Minister to join him on Nukulau. While this may be a cogent observation on his part, Speight may be running out of time, since committal proceedings against him will proceed on July 9. Meanwhile, Speight supporters are hopeful that ‘divine’ intervention will see the treason case collapse on its own weight and the rebels will be free at last.

Freedom or not, the events of May 19, 2000 have caused a fundamental shift in attitudes in all communities in Fiji and have reinforced widely held prejudices and biases. Unfortunately, the caretaker government has not made any effort to encourage cross cultural understanding or friendship, because it too feeds on the frenzy and racism unleashed by the George Speight group. In the end, Fiji will carry on with the post 1987 tradition of racism and institutionalized discrimination.

© Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D.

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