SECRET CHARGES AGAINST FIJI JUDGE IMPROPER

Editorial

FijiSUN

SUVA, Fiji (July 17) - "Independent" should be the operative word in the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption. Unfortunately, it isn't - or at least it hasn't been. By its own admission FICAC is not independent. It has stated that it would be "suicidal" to seek to investigate matters relating to the military. Similarly, it appears to assume that the members of the Interim Government and their most senior civil servants are beyond reproach. Of course they may well be so, but it's a sweeping assumption made while others are publicly tarred with the brush of corruption without the benefit of trial or even evidence.

FICAC's decision to restrict publicity on its activities is a two-edged sword -- but on balance it is a necessary one. There will be no more public raids and no more public denunciations, the commission's new boss has announced.

All future inquiries will be conducted in private with the results of those inquiries being known only when charges are laid and matters are brought to court. This degree of secrecy would be a reasonable price to pay for effective prosecutions if it could only be guaranteed that the commission would be well, truly independent, and completely "untouchable."

Sadly, no such guarantee yet exists.

There is little doubt that certain individuals and groups have sought to use FICAC, the Interim Government and the military to settle scores - and there is equally little doubt that time has been wasted on such unproven and at times unfounded allegations.So, taking FICAC out of the public eye may well help it sift the gems of hard evidence from the dross of wild allegations. Let's hope so, anyway. For it is very early days for this organization that continues to promise so much but so far has delivered little.

True, it needs more time to establish itself. FICAC could well become a vital addition to the national armory in the battle against what has become known as white-collar crime. For no thinking person seriously believes that such crime is not committed here or that it is not serious and increasing.

There is a widely held perception that the fat cats can get away with it, the implication being that what goes for them should go for all. It's one of the major means by which the cancer of corruption spreads.

The creation of FICAC, then, is a positive move.

But if it cannot restore that word "independent" to the public's perception of it, credibility will continue to be its worst enemy.

Please explain:

The attorney general is quite right, of course. The President is not obliged to give his reasons for rejecting the Interim Government's nominees to the tribunal to examine allegations against ousted Chief Justice Daniel Fatiaki.

Neither, however, is he obliged not to declare his reasons and it might have been thought that, under the circumstances, he would have felt inclined to exercise his right to make public his grounds for rejection. For the circumstances are, to say the least, unusual.

It is some seven months since Fatiaki was unceremoniously removed by the military so that investigations into certain unspecified allegations could be pursued.

In that time there has been no further information on these allegations, far less charges of specific misconduct. The public and, more importantly, Fatikai, have no idea of what the nation's most senior judge stands accused of.

Now we have the President, who normally acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, rejecting the nominees of that same Prime Minister and Cabinet to the body that would consider whatever charges there might be against Fatiaki. It doesn't seem to add up and the public really does deserve an explanation.

In the meantime the Interim Government has another two months to produce nominations that the President - on the Government's advice - might accept. However, if Ratu Iloilo felt unable to accept the first nominations there can surely be no guarantee that he will sanction the second list.

This is manifestly unfair not only to Fatiaki but to his acting replacement, Justice Anthony Gates, who has been asked to hold the fort for some unspecified time while some as yet unspecified charges are brought against a brother judge. It does nothing to promote public confidence in the administration of justice.

Surely the only fair course now is to reinstate Fatiaki - or to tell him and the people of Fiji what he is accused of -- for to prevent any person from pursuing his or her chosen profession for such a lengthy period for no reason - or no apparent reason - defies natural justice.

Fatiaki, like anyone else, is entitled to his day in court when charges against him can be tested by evidence. After seven months, however, there are not even any charges to test.

Reinstatement need not mean an end to whatever investigations might be in train. But in the absence of charges or even grounds for serious allegations, it seems the only reasonable course of action.

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