FIJI COUP LEADER SPEIGHT FACING PARLIAMENTARY EJECTION

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (December 5, 2001 – Agence France-Presse)---Fiji's accused traitor George Speight could be expelled from his parliamentary seat on Friday but symptomatic of the unfinished business in the Pacific nation he will be back, one way or another.

Speight won his seat two months ago while sitting on his prison island awaiting trial for treason following his coup last year in which Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his government were held hostage for 56 days.

Fiji faces a testing February with the treason trial, the expected conclusion of a mutiny court martial and an Appeal Court ruling on the legality of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's government.

Constitution co-author Brij Lal, a Fiji Indian and Australian National University academic, says Fiji's society is now very much strained.

"Although on the surface things look calm ... but hidden behind the rhetoric of multiculturalism and reconciliation lie deep suspicions and raw prejudices, more widespread now than in Fiji's recent past," he writes in a new research paper.

He adds: "The politics of ethnic chauvinism and confrontation will continue to keep Fiji in a state of perpetual turmoil."

Speight and special forces Counter Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) seized parliament on May 19 last year.

On May 29 the Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) declared martial law. On July 9 Speight signed a deal with the military to release his hostages in return for immunity.

Chaudhry and company were released on July 13 and Speight and company were arrested on July 26 and have been in custody on Nukulau Island.

On November 2 CRW members staged a mutiny at military headquarters, leaving eight dead.

In September this year Qarase, after elections, was sworn in as prime minister as the head of his Soqosoqo ni Duavata Lewenivanua (SDL) party, after snubbing Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party whose members, in theory, were entitled to eight seats in the Cabinet.

Chaudhry has filed suit seeking a declaration that the SDL, which holds 31 of the 71 seats, is an illegal government. That will be heard by the Court of Appeal in February.

Speight, one of six MP's elected under the Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua flag, has never been allowed to sit in Parliament and this week Speaker Epeli Nailatikau is expected to rule on whether he can retain his seat.

Diplomatic sources in Suva expect Speight will be stripped of his seat, but as he has not been convicted of any crime there will be nothing to stop him running in the subsequent by-election in his Tailevu North homeland and win again.

In February Speight and 12 others go on trial for treason, facing the death penalty if found guilty. Legal sources expect the trial to last at least four months.

At RFMF's headquarters 15 CRW soldiers are on trial for their lives. Death by firing squad is the penalty for mutiny.

Although part way through the evidence, witnesses have claimed that the mutiny was led by one of the country's leading ratus or chiefs, SDL Senator Inoke Takiveikata. He denies involvement.

Due to give evidence is 1987 coup leader and military strongman Sitiveni Rabuka. Although retired from RFMF he showed up at the mutiny in full uniform. He claims he was trying to mediate but came close to being killed.

Verdicts are expected in February.

Of Fiji's 800,000 people, 44 percent are Indians while 51 percent are indigenous Melanesians and Polynesians.

Lal says the elections, which had been intended to resolve difficulties and heal wounds, had "ended up polarizing ethnic relations even further."

The mutiny's violence, he says, remains a source of great bitterness and tension in the Fijian community, uncomprehending of the possibility of a Fijian army spilling Fijian blood.

"The social costs of the political crisis are visible."

It included poverty, joblessness, prostitution, growing squatter settlements, rising suicides, pay cuts and garment factory closures.

Lal says people who had moderate views now seek shelter in extremist ethnic camps, with Indians seeing Chaudhry as their only hope, and Fijians similarly supporting Qarase, who is pushing a blueprint for indigenous paramountcy.

"Qarase knows that if he does not deliver on his electorally appealing but poorly costed promises to the Fijians and appease the nationalist fringe, small but powerful, capable of immediate mobilization, and ready to take to the streets to be heard, he will suffer the same fate as his predecessors," Lal says.

His assurances to the non-indigenous community ring hollow and will affect the country ahead.

"And George Speight, awaiting trial for treason, still casts a long shadow over Fiji's political landscape."

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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