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By Samisoni Pareti

Islands Business Magazine

SUVA, Fiji (Aug. 6) - Fiji's vice president Ratu Jope Seniloli has been jailed awaiting sentencing after a Fiji court convicted him for his involvement in the 2000 coup.

Ratu Jope and four other politicians also charged with complicity in the coup were bused to the Suva Gaol from the Suva High Court Building minutes after the court found them guilty.

The bus was closely guarded by police officers, some of whom were in the bus with the 5 and many more in vehicles that escort the bus to prison.

Ratu Jope and the others convicted spent the night in gaol and they are due to appear in court again this morning for sentencing.

Maximum sentence for the charge, which is taking part in an engagement in the nature of an oath to commit a capital offence, is life imprisonment.

A surprise development in the month-long trial in which state lawyers called a total of 10 witnesses, including former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who was ousted in the coup and held hostage with members of his government for 56 days, was the acquittal of Fiji cabinet minister, Sireli Leweniqila.

Leweniqila is one of the youngest members of Fiji's government, holding the portfolio of youth, employment opportunities and sports.

During the trial, he was caught on television camera of taking an oath to be minister for tourism and transport in the self-styled government of coup leader George Speight.

His defense was that the oath ceremony was a hoax and that he was forced by Speight and his gunmen to participate.

He said he was not free to leave the besieged parliament then, and he did try to convince the hostage takers not to harm Mr Chaudhry and the other hostages.

"I agree with the decision of the assessors and I therefore acquit you," High Court Judge Nazhat Shameem told Leweniqila who was amongst the six in the dock.

"You may stand down." Leweniqila's lawyer, Davnesh Sharma consequently asked that be excused.

The five-member assessors or jury's decision was not unanimous. Whilst all gave Leweniqila a not-guilty verdict, all but one gave the rest of the five a guilty verdict. The dissenter gave a not guilty to all six, but Judge Shameem disregarded this saying she will be guided by the majority decision of the assessors.

State lawyer New South Wales QC Mark Tedeschi submitted that the sentences to be dished out should be in the range of the most serious offence, noting that the maximum penalty of taking an unlawful oath is life.

"The accused in committing the offence allied themselves to the coup leader who had the day before topple the head of a lawfully elected government."

"They also gave George Speight more weight, enabling him to portray that he had formed a viable and alternate government that is ready to take over the role of the one he had ousted.

"This action struck at the core of the democratic system of government this country has enjoyed over the most part of its existence."

"The coup destroyed the image of Fiji internationally, and saw the collapse of its tourism industry and the flight in foreign exchange."

"I further submit that none of the convicted had manifested contrition or remorse."

Seniloli's lawyer Mehboob Raza asked that sentencing be postponed to Monday as his client needed to attend Friday's funeral of the widow of the man he attempted to replace during the 2000 coup, Ratu Mara.

"You must realise that your client will be remanded after this. He's not going home," Judge Shameem told Raza.

The judge went onto to set sentencing at 8.30 tomorrow morning.

A crowd of about 200 mainly government office workers working beside the concrete court building gathered outside to watch Seniloli and his group boarded the bright red police bus for Suva Gaol, a kilometre away. A few women, relatives of the convicted, cried openly.

Security was tight inside and outside the court building with police officers, unarmed and some in civilian clothing posted in large numbers. Police also mounted security checkpoints in the capital's main thoroughfares.

August 6, 2004

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