Fiji Police Detain, Then Release Opposition Figures Over Comments At Public Forum

Leaders, including former PM Rabuka, face possible ban from politics

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Sept. 12, 2016) – Fiji police are still deciding whether to lay charges after releasing six opposition figures after questioning over comments they made about the country's constitution at a public forum.

Five were released on Sunday and Fiji Times Online is reporting former prime minister and leader of the Fiji Labour Party Mahendra Chaudhry has been released today.

Police said they were investigating whether critical comments made at the gathering last week "could affect the safety and security of all Fijians".

Among those detained, the leader of the main opposition party SODELPA, Sitiveni Rabuka, told Pacific Beat he could still be charged and, if convicted, faced the prospect of being banned from contesting the next election.

"The reports have to go up to the DPP's (Director of Public Prosecutions) Office to determine whether any of our actions have been culpable," said Mr Rabuka, a former prime minister and army commander.

"We are not out of the woods yet — they will decide either to lay charges or to warn us as bad boys and let us go."

In a video statement posted on Facebook after he emerged from custody, the leader of the National Federation Party, Biman Prasad, said they had been treated very well.

"We feel a bit tired and it's time to rest," he said.

Police also released academic Dr Tupeni Baba, trade union leader Attar Singh, and the organiser of the forum Jone Dakuvula, head of the non-government organisation Pacific Dialogue.

Mr Rabuka said spending the night in police cells reminded him of his military training days.

"It was something that we had to go through, the nation has to go through," Mr Rabuka said.

"We have to realise that we live in a country that is guided by rules and regulations and the law.

"There are certain restrictions that are required to be imposed on us when we are perceived to have overstepped the use of our freedoms.

"Because it was Constitution Week, [we thought] it was a good time for us to focus on [it] and that's what I did but that's probably not what the authorities thought.

"At the moment, we don't really know if we are going to be charged on not [but] if we are going to be charged, then we will be put under bail conditions and restrictions will be imposed on our media freedom and also on our movements."

The Delegation of the European Union for the Pacific has expressed concern over the matter and called for full respect for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Fiji.

Kris Prasad, a member of Fiji Youth for Democracy, said about 50 family members and supporters of the men had gathered outside the Totogo police station while they were being questioned.

"I'm here to bear witness to what's going on," he told the ABC from outside the police station.

"We are very concerned about the recent developments and the culture of fear and intimidation that will result."

External Link: Facebook: 'Fiji Labour Party strongly denounces the arrest of political leaders in Suva yesterday.'

New Zealand taking a 'close interest'

New Zealand's foreign minister Murray McCully told the New Zealand Herald that Wellington was taking a "close interest" in the developments.

"Obviously anything that constrains free speech and space for legitimate political debate would be a concern to the New Zealand Government," he said from Micronesia, where he has been attending the Pacific Islands Forum.

"I've simply conveyed that to [Fiji's representative] Ratu Inoke and asked him to convey to his Government our close interest in how this plays out."

Amnesty International condemned the arrests, describing them as a "brazen crackdown on people for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression".

"The men appear to have been detained under Fiji's repressive Public Order Amendment Decree, which restricts the ability to hold 'public' meetings," saidRafendi Djamin, Amnesty's Director for South East Asia and the Pacific, in a statement.

"There is no evidence to suggest that the event posed any threat to national security."

Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama came to power in a bloodless military coup in 2006.

The 2013 constitution was drawn up by the military regime after it scrapped a draft which a constitutional committee had prepared after widespread public consultations.

Mr Bainimarama stood down from the military to run as a civilian in the country's 2014 elections, winning by a landslide.

A new session of Fiji's Parliament was opened with a speech by President George Konrote on Monday before being adjourned for two weeks.

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