By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (January 27, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---Fiji authorities are set to strike a plea bargain with coup plotter George Speight and other accused traitors, which will see capital high treason charges against them dropped in return for guilty pleas on lesser charges, legal sources say.

Speight and 12 others, all in custody on an island near the capital Suva, face treason charges following the May 2000 armed insurrection in which then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his government were held hostage for 56 days.

Fiji's military, which had declared martial law, negotiated a deal signed on July 9, 2000 under which the plotters were granted immunity in return for freeing the hostages and returning military arms.

The hostages were freed four days later and on July 26, 2000, Speight and others were arrested on a variety of charges that were eventually consolidated into a single charge of treason containing 13 overt acts.

Speight's High Court trial was due to begin on February 19 before English Justice Peter Surnam, but it will now be before Chief Justice Sir Timoci Tuivaga, who has attracted fierce criticism for his role in helping draft decrees used in declaring martial law.

In helping scrap the constitution Tuivaga, 70, changed rules, which would have forced his retirement.

Fiji judicial authorities could not be contacted Sunday for confirmation of the plea bargain.

The deal would also see evidence sealed, although sources said Speight, who plans to represent himself, is seeking to make a tell-all statement in court in mitigation on the lesser charges.

Said one source: "He is going to blow the whistle on those behind the coup."

Another said: "There will be a deal to reduce all charges so they all plead guilty and the evidence is stifled."

If Speight goes to trial for treason his defense would, in part, be that there was no treason because his coup had been successful.

Sources did not reveal what the replacement charges would be. They were initially arrested on charges of unlawful assembly and arms related charges. Unlawful assembly attracts a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment. Speight will have already served 18 months in custody by the time of his trial.

Until now Surnam, 66, after fending off a prosecution attempt to have him removed from the case on the grounds of his age and health, has pressed on and insisted there be no more delays. But with more than 240 witnesses due to have given evidence, the trial would last months and well beyond what was to have been Surnam's retirement.

Last year, in a lower court preliminary hearing, New Zealand lawyer Gerard McCoy, for the state, said prosecution evidence would name those really behind the coup.

A senior army officer, Viliame Seruvakula, now with the New Zealand Army, claimed Speight had only been a front for the coup and that the real plotters were still free.

Speight's proposed defense that there was no treason because his coup was successful, relates to the 1618 legal maxim: "Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason."

Ultimately his best defense was the immunity decree he signed with the military. Authorities justified his arrest saying he broke the deal by not returning all the arms seized from the military, but even before the coup the military were admitting problems in accounting for arms and ammunition.

Although Fiji does not appeal to the Privy Council it follows English common law, which means a London decision on immunity in Trinidad may be significant.

In July 1990, the Jamaat al Muslimeen tried to overthrow the government in a bloody six-day siege that killed 23 people. Later the Muslimeen members were absolved of treason, murder and kidnapping charges when the Privy Council ruled that an amnesty given to them during negotiations to end the siege was valid.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail:  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website:  Website: 



SUVA, Fiji Islands (January 28, 2002 – Fiji Times)---There will be no mercy for George Speight despite an overseas report that the coup leader and 12 others are set to strike a plea bargain.

A news agency report yesterday quoted unnamed "legal sources" as saying that the capital charge of treason would be dropped in return for guilty pleas on lesser charges.

However, the Director of Public Prosecution's Office yesterday rejected any such deal.

"As far as we are concerned, we won't accept any lesser charge for key players,'' Joe Naigulevu said.

"A lesser charge won't be acceptable for a major player like Speight.''

The overseas report stated that there would be a deal to reduce all charges so that Speight and 12 others could plead guilty and no evidence would be heard.

The report also said Speight wanted to make a statement in court on who was behind the coup.

Speight, his brother Jim, Apenisa Ravutuqica, Simione Drole, Ilisoni Ligairi, Timoci Silatolu, Josefa Nata, Joseva Savua, Maciu Navakasuasua, Samu Konataci, Iliesa Duvuloco and Peceli Vuniwa are charged with treason for the takeover of Parliament on May 19, 2000 and the overthrow of the People's coalition government.

For additional reports from the Fiji Times, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Fiji Times. 

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