FIJI COURT ACQUITS 14 OF COUP COMPLICITY

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By Atunaiasa Sokomuri

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Sun, Nov. 4) –Senator Apisai Tora and 13 others accused of unlawful assembly during the 2000 coup were yesterday acquitted of all charges.

Magistrate Sayed Mukhtar Shah handed down his verdict in the Nadi court after failing to find enough evidence for convictions.

An elated Senator Tora gave praise to the almighty and said justice had been done.

"It has been a long wait but I am finally relieved that it’s all over," he said.

Senator Tora thanked his lawyer, Iqbal Khan, who had offered his services free of charge to help the Sabeto villagers.

The firebrand politician, who had once been jailed before for leading a strike, said he would now be able to lead a normal life.

The group was charged with unlawful assembly on the night of July 13 and July 14, 2000. They allegedly gathered with about 200 others at the Sabeto junction to take over a checkpoint guarded by the Republic of Fiji Military Forces. In the process, they allegedly caused fear in the neighborhood and breached the peace.

The State was represented by Andy Driu from the DPP’s office.

Mr Shah said the court found that as a result of cross examination, the prosecution evidence was discredited to such an extent that it could not be relied on to convict all the accused.

"Many witnesses refused to answer several relevant questions. They chose to remain silent and the court found it very odd and even two witnesses admitted lying on oath in court," he said.

Many witnesses were inconsistent in their evidence in court, Mr Shah said. They told the police one thing in their evidence but in court, under oath, they changed their stories.

He said the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that all the accused assembled and took over the checkpoint to commit a breach of peace.

"There is absolutely no evidence that they caused any fear in the neighborhood or near the junction," Mr Shah said.

The court also heard that of the 12 witnesses called, three were police officers, two of whom had told the court that they had not put to some of the accused the charge of unlawful assembly. Two police officers also admitted during cross examination that they did not give the accused their constitutional rights to have access to a lawyer of their own choice.

One of the officers did not know that such legal rights existed under the Constitution. He did not comply with the requirements of the Police Statutory Orders that when conducting an interview, another officer must be present as witness to the interview.

Another officer did not note down his conversation with the accused during the interview because, he said, there was a law 2000 years old which does not require a police officer to take down notes in a notebook.

Mr Shah said the admission by the officers was not only extraordinary but also alarming.

"I hope that the authorities concerned take note of this immediately and make sure the requirements under the Fiji Constitution and the Police Standing Orders are complied with every time, this will ensure that any suspect is given his legal rights before the interview commences and also said that all police officers ought to be aware of matters in the Constitution and the Police Standing Orders which deal directly with the work on a day-to-day basis," Mr Shah said.

November 4, 2004

FijiSUN: http://www.sun.com.fj/

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