FIJI’S COUP PLOTTERS EXPECTED TO SEEK BAIL FRIDAY

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FIJI’S COUP PLOTTERS EXPECTED TO SEEK BAIL FRIDAY

By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (August 21, 2001 – Agence France-Presse)---Fiji coup plotter George Speight and 12 others are expected to seek bail Friday when they appear on treason charges in a suddenly moved opening session of the High Court, legal sources said Tuesday.

Speight and 12 others are also seeking to have the scheduled judge, Justice Peter Surnam, removed from the case.

Justice Surnam Tuesday suddenly directed the case to open this Friday instead of the scheduled initial appearance on August 31.

No reason was given but it is understood Justice Surnam, a former English and Hong Kong barrister, did not want the opening day on August 31, during a week of polling for general elections.

The elections are to restore democracy after Speight and others seized parliament in May last year.

Although in detention, Speight and co-accused Timoci Silatolu and special forces soldier Ilisoni Ligairi, are candidates in the election.

The 13 were remanded to the High Court in July after preliminary hearings in the Magistrate's Court.

At that time Speight’s new lawyer, Marc-Michel Gumbert of Sydney, said his client would not dispute many of the facts but would argue he had immunity from prosecution as a result of a deal struck last year with the then martial law administrators.

Legal sources told AFP that Speight’s Suva lawyer, Kitone Vuataki, has indicated he would apply for bail for his client and the others, partly on the grounds that Fiji’s justice system is now seriously clogged up with major cases.

Last week 12 people facing murder charges, who had already been in custody for two years without trial, had been released on bail. There is now a two-year waiting list for murder trials, sources said.

Due to the seriousness of the charges facing Speight and the others accused, sources say it is unlikely that Justice Surnam will grant the application, expected to be heard in chambers.

Unusually Vuataki has also written to Chief Justice Sir Timoci Tuivaga seeking to have Justice Surnam removed from the case on the grounds that he has ruled against the rebels on a previous coup immunity case.

It is seen as unusual to deal with an issue by such a private letter rather than doing it through an application in open court.

Its unclear what the defense strategy is because were they to succeed in removing Justice Surnam they country has no other High Court judges immediately available who could necessarily be seen as being totally impartial. An earlier High Court civil case produced affidavits from three judges against three others, all on coup related matters, effectively removing the entire High Court bench from presiding over any trial.

Other than the bail hearing the court Friday is expected to hear submissions on the likely length of the trial, the number of expected witnesses and discussion on facts agreed to by the prosecution and the defense.

The trial will open in the High Court in the Government Buildings in downtown Suva. As in the past it is expected to be held with heightened military security, particularly coming a day ahead of the opening of polls.

At the end of the Magistrate’s Court appearances Gumbert said Speight did not dispute the fact that he seized parliament and took Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry hostage.

"It is patently apparent that George Speight did not do this out of personal ambition. It is apparent that he did not obtain any office whatever."

Speight was fighting for the indigenous Fijian cause, he said.

Gumbert said the major issue before the court is an alleged immunity granted to Speight and his group of rebels under the so-called Muanikau Accord, which drew the hostage crisis to a close.

"Let us not forget, in good faith he was given an immunity.

"We want in court to have only the matter to decide why the authorities have decided to resile from an immunity he was granted in all good faith and which a large proportion of the Fijian population supports."

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/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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