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Top diplomats have 24 hours to leave country

SUVA, Fiji (Fijilive, Nov. 3, 2009) – A smouldering row between the governments of Fiji and Australia and New Zealand over travel sanctions on Fiji’s judges has tonight spilled over into a full scale diplomatic war, with the Fiji government ordering the heads of missions of its two neighbours back home within 24 hours.

In a no-questions-taken statement before members of the local media in Suva this evening, Fiji’s Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama said he had made the decision following a meeting with new President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau.

Fiji’s High Commissioner to Australia, Kamlesh Arya was also being recalled to Fiji.

The action is a full-scale retaliation for what Bainimarama said was a "consolidated effort to attack Fiji’s independent judiciary", displayed by proof that Australia had told Sri Lankan judges recruited to serve on the Fijian judiciary that travel sanctions would apply because they had taken the positions.

Bainimarama said although there had been frenzied denials by the Australian government that visas had been refused, "however, we now know that one of the Sri Lankan judges had the foresight to tape the conversation in which she was informed by the Australian official in Colombo that travel sanctions would apply because had taken the position in the Fijian judiciary".

This also showed that the Australian and New Zealand governments had been dishonest and untruthful over the matter of travel bans for judges, Bainimarama said.

Bainimarama said his meeting with Nailatikau today took place after a meeting with Chief Justice Anthony Gates this morning where Justice Gates told the PM that interference by the Australian and New Zealand governments in our judiciary undermines the judiciary.

"The Chief Justice told me that this policy of these two governments stops him from nominating credible, well qualified individuals to serve on the bench. He also highlighted the fact that such interference is unheard of, in the absence of evidence that members of the judiciary are breaching any laws internationally or in Fiji."

He said the denial of a New Zealand visa on medical grounds to Family Court judge Justice Anjala Wati for the medical treatment of her baby was further evidence of the attack on the Fijian judiciary.

"I am baffled by the position taken by the Australian and New Zealand governments. On one hand they are our largest trading partners, they are members of the Pacific Islands Forum. Sixty percent of our tourists come from these countries and their numbers are growing on a daily basis. The majority of our people who have migrated have gone to these countries. We have studied, worked and holidayed the most in these countries."

"They claim to be our friends yet on the other hand, they fail to recognise the efforts we are making in being a good international citizen. They fail to understand that we are creating a country based on equal and common citizenry, a country of modern laws, a country which will have true democracy. We have consistently said that we want to engage with our neighbours and indeed with all international and multilateral partners."

At the same time, he said it was his government’s duty that no foreign government should interfere with Fiji’s judicial independence and integrity.

"We must always protect and be proud of our sovereignty. I wish to declare that my government fully supports the Chief Justice. We will always ensure that his independence and that of his judges remains unassailable.

"It is for these reasons that I have told the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue communications to the Australia and New Zealand governments that their respective heads of missions are to be recalled within 24 hours."

I have also informed them that our High Commissioner in Australia is to be recalled with immediate effect."

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