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SUVA, Fiji Islands (February 14, 2002 – Fiji Sun/Pasifik Nius/Niuswire)---The opposition Fiji Labour Party and civil society groups have condemned the government for trying to remove the death penalty on the eve of a trial of 12 coup leaders accused of treason, local news media report.

And the Fiji Sun newspaper has criticized Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase’s government for trying to do this "in secrecy."

Labour accused the government of condoning terrorists while the Citizens Constitutional Forum (CCF) questioned the timing of the legal amendment.

Coup front man George Speight and 11 of his alleged co-conspirators during the May 2000 putsch are due to go on trial for treason on Monday.

The Sun said in a newspaper editorial that it was an opportune time to remind Qarase’s Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party that it had pledged to be transparent in governance.

"A lot of people will surely welcome the (anti death penalty) proposal, notably human rights organizations like Amnesty International," the paper said.

"But, as rightly pointed out by the CCF, why decide in secrecy?"

"What is wrong about generating debate on the issue?"

Labour Party spokesperson John Ali told the Sun those responsible for the murder of others and destruction of property "should be made to pay for their sins."

He said that if Fiji changed the law now, the country would be regarded as one that condoned terrorism.

"If Fiji changes the law, it will be seen as a favor to terrorists and it will give Fiji a bad name as a country that condones and harbors terrorists," Ali said.

He added that the FLP would comment fully when the bill seeking the change was put before the House of Representatives.

He felt that it was not appropriate to change the law on such an important matter without consultation and without reference to human rights groups.

"We believe treason should remain a capital offence," Ali told the Sun.

"The lawlessness that followed the events of May 19 is responsible for the loss of over 20 lives."

The government confirmed the proposed changes, with a senior government official saying the bill seeking the removal of the death penalty from Fiji’s Penal Code had already been gazetted.

News of the bill emerged from a CCF media statement this week.

The statement said that although the CCF was opposed to any law that imposed the death penalty for offences, it was questioning why the Attorney General regarded this legislation as more urgent than any other legislation.

"This appears to be a purely political decision to satisfy George Speight and his supporters and I question why the Qarase government continues to pander to the will and desire of people who have committed serious offences," said CCF executive director Reverend Akuila Yabaki.

"Why should amendment of the Penal Code to appease George Speight take precedence over laws that are required by the constitution to be introduced as soon as possible."

Title -- 3522 JUSTICE: Labour slams Fiji death penalty move Date -- 14 February 2002 Byline -- None Origin -- Pasifik Nius Source -- Fiji Sun/PN, 14/2/2 Copyright -- PN Status -- Unabridged

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