FIJI COUP LEADER GEORGE SPEIGHT SENTENCED TO DEATH BUT SENTENCE QUICKLY

admin's picture

COMMUTED TO LIFE

By Michael Field

SUVA, Fiji Islands (February 18, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---Fiji coup leader George Speight was sentenced to death Monday after pleading guilty to treason but it was quickly commuted to life imprisonment by President Josefa Iloilo.

"George Speight," said Justice Michael Scott, after placing a black silk cloth on his wig, "the sentence of the court upon you is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution and that you there suffer death by hanging and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul."

The sentence came just after the midday clock struck at the courthouse and by 4:00 pm the Prerogative of Mercy Commission was recommending the sentence be commuted to one of life imprisonment, Attorney General Qoriniasi Bale said.

"We convened a special meeting of the Prerogative of Mercy Commission and we decided after considering all relevant considerations to advise the president to commute the death penalty against George Speight to one of life imprisonment," he said.

Among the considerations was the security of the nation, he said, amid fears that unrest may follow.

The charges arise out of the coup in May 2000, when Speight and his henchmen kept the then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his cabinet hostage for 56 days in the parliament building.

At the start of his treason hearing Monday, Speight told the court: "I’m guilty your worship."

The coup plunged the small island nation into political chaos, leading the military to declare martial law. Elections were held in September, but the new government is still beset by legal wrangles.

"The events of May 2000 have been an unmitigated catastrophe for Fiji but also for you," Justice Scott told Speight.

"By pleading guilty you have done the right thing and I am certain you will be given credit for the course you have taken. I have no option but to pass the sentence upon which is laid down by law."

The bald-headed Speight wept uncontrollably even before the sentence was passed and was immediately taken from court afterwards.

His Australian defence lawyer Ron Cannon appealed to Speight's supporters to keep calm assuring them the death penalty would not be carried out.

"Speight earnestly requests his followers and supporters who may fear for his physical plight to remain calm and orderly," Cannon said in a statement outside court.

"His life is not in danger. His fate is in the hands of the president and any over reaction by riotous conduct will have an adverse effect on the reputation of the Republic of Fiji and its citizens.

Ten of Speight's co-accused won a plea bargain deal and pleaded guilty to lesser charges carrying a maximum of seven years in jail.

The 10 included special forces soldier Ilisoni Ligairi, and Speight’s brother Jim. They pleaded guilty to wrongfully keeping in confinement abducted prisoners, and with time served in remand taken into account, they will do no more than three years eight months.

Two others, journalist Joe Nata and politician Timoci Silatolu, still face the original treason charge and have not been asked to plea yet.

Speight, who began the day on the relatively luxury of a temporary camp at Nukulau Island near here, was Monday night in an infamous high security prison west of here.

Cannon told the court that while passing death was distasteful, his client understood the situation.

In his statement outside court, Cannon said Speight "pleaded guilty to avoid any further divisiveness in the community."

"It is in the interests of all concerned that this litigation be at an end and that peace and tranquility and economic progress, which accompanies stability, be established in the Republic of Fiji," Cannon said.

"He comes from a long line of Fijians who have had always the interest of their people at heart and the preservation of their sacred inheritance and culture."

He said Speight did not act out of greed or for his personal advancement. "What he did he thought was in the interests of Fiji. The way in which he chose to act was unlawful."

Speight would never desist in his quest for justice for Fijians but he would do it by legal means. "This is a Fijian problem and should be solved by Fijians," Cannon added.

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 

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment