Posted by Koya
A prominent lawyer says the jailing of Fiji’s last democratically elected prime minister shows the military government is trying to remove its opposition ahead of elections slated for 2014.
Laisenia Qarase was sentenced to one year in prison on Friday for charges relating to share trading and conflict-of-interest chargesdating back to the 1990s.
The charges relate to his dealing when he was a director of Fijian Holdings Limited and an advisor to the Fijian Affairs Board and the Great Council of Chiefs.
Qarase went on to be elected prime minister in 2001 but was forced from office by Mr Bainimarama after the 2006 military coup.
The 71-year-old leader of Fiji’s indigenous SDL Party is expected to appeal against the sentence, but the furore is likely to rule him out of the 2014 elections.
The timing of the case has prompted accusations that the military government of Frank Bainimarama is intent on removing any opposition and silencing all critics ahead of the poll.
Peter Williams is a New Zealand QC who has been a regular face in Fijian courtrooms over the years.
He says the resurrection of 20-year-old accusations raise questions of the government’s motivation.
Mr Williams says he has no doubt the charges are politically motivated.
“What was happening was the so-called interim government, as they’re trying to suppress any opposition in these so-called elections that are coming up and they will put their own candidates up in due course and of course anyone standing against them will be harassed,” he said.
Mr Williams is currently representing another member of Qarase’s SDL party, who has been accused of trying to overthrow the government.
Mere Samisoni is a 74-year-old member of parliament who was arrested today.
Mr Williams says the arresting officer openly admitted her detention was illegal.
“She just rang me and I spoke to the officer in charge and I said, ‘why are you arresting this woman?’,” he said.
“[The police officer said], ‘I know it’s illegal, but I’ve been told to do it’.”
Mr Williams said when he pressed the officer as to why Ms Samisoni was arrested, he said “I’ve got no reason”.
Mr Williams says he has had several cases in Fiji and has no complaint with the judiciary.
“The judiciary is doing their best in their own way,” he said.
But he described the interim government as being “like an octopus with tentacles”.
“They control everything and now of course they want a new constitution with immunity for themselves,” he said.
“They want to be able to dominate the next elections and they’re not prepared to give anyone who opposes them a fair go. It’s as simple as that.”
Only this week, Foreign Minister Bob Carr, along with his New Zealand and Fijian counterparts, announced a stepping up of political relations.
High commissioners to Fiji will be reinstated and some travel restrictions on civilian members of Fiji’s interim regime will be relaxed on a case-by-case basis.
Mr Williams says Australia and New Zealand should have made the concession only with a strict list of criteria attached.
“The interim government have got to agree to a set of measures which show that they are prepared to be fair and to be reasonable and to allow proper discussion, as in any other democratic country,” he said.
“We can criticise people. Over there, unless you agree with the government, beware.”
But Steven Ratuva, a lecturer in Pacific studies at Auckland University, says moves by Australia and New Zealand are part of a much bigger power play in the Pacific.
“There is big political pressure from the United States to start engaging with Fiji because of the Chinese threat,” he said.
“So it’s a much bigger geopolitical and strategic issue as well.”
SDL says it will continue its fight for democracy, even though its leader is now unlikely to be eligible to stand in the 2014 elections.
Fiji’s interim attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, told PM his only comment was that the court’s ruling speaks for itself.
New Zealand foreign minister Murray McCully says he will be seeking assurances from Fiji authorities that due process was followed in the case of Qarase.
He says this is an important period in Fiji which will give a strong indication as to whether elections in 2014 will be free and fair.
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