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The trial and after

Print edition : Jan 31, 2003 T+T-
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George Speight, who led the coup against an elected government in Fiji in May 2000.-

The trial of George Speight and his gang points to a deep conspiracy behind the May 2000 coup in Fiji; however, it also revives the racial schisms engendered by the coup.

MORE than two years after an armed coup in Fiji, a controversial trial for treason and mutiny has revived memories of that painful period in the South Pacific island nation. Witnesses deposing at the trial have given evidence of what transpired after the armed gang stormed Parliament Building and captured the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

The eyewitness accounts have brought back images of the lawlessness that prevailed during the period, when there was no legitimate government. They also give credence to the belief that many of those involved in the coup escaped punishment in the weeks it took to bring the situation under control.

Mahendra Chaudhry, the first Prime Minister of Indian origin, was ousted when the armed gang held him and his Cabinet hostage for 56 days. The Army negotiated the release of the hostages and the agreement gave amnesty to those who were part of the coup, but a small gang was later arrested when its members violated the terms of the deal. Its leader, George Speight, a failed businessman, and his associates pleaded guilty to charges of treason and were sentenced without any evidence being heard. Ratu Timoci Silatolu, a politician, and Joe Nata, a journalist-publicist, were not part of the gang of seven armed men who stormed the Parliament complex but are accused of being closely involved in the takeover. Both have pleaded not guilty. Their depositions have brought back shocking images of the armed subversion of democracy in May 2000.

Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, in his testimony in the Suva High Court, described how he was physically assaulted, his hands were tied behind his back, and he was dragged along the floor by the armed men. The intruders called upon the ethnic Fijian Ministers and members of Parliament to join them Chaudhry said, and added that Timoci Silatolu, a member of his People's Coalition government, joined Speight.

Chaudhry said he was threatened with death if he did not resign and that during his eight weeks in captivity, Silatolu repeatedly asked him to resign. "The idea was to break me, but they could not do it," he said.

Prompt military action could have contained the crisis by isolating the Parliament complex. But initial inaction and the publicity given to the statements of the gunmen led to groups of radical ethnic Fijians reaching the complex in large numbers and setting up camps on the lawns. The gunmen were then able to make the building secure from police action and also obtain support from their political backers and others in crucial positions.

Other witnesses, including Parliament officials, have given evidence of how the MPs were herded into groups, while the Cabinet members were confined to a separate chamber. Parliament staff were made to lie down on the floor of the main chamber until the next day.

Much of this evidence had not been heard before because of the tense political situation that prevailed even after the hostages were released. It was made public for the first time that the Hansard record (official bulletin) of Parliament for May 19, 2000 carried an account of the "proceedings" of the House as the armed men entered the House of Representatives chamber. The Hansard reporter on duty on that morning, Serei Seniloli Muacavu, recorded each word uttered in the House as the coup began. She told the court that the "strangers" jumped over the security bars from the public gallery at about 10.30 a.m. Following parliamentary practice, Seniloli Muacavu described George Speight as Stranger Number 1 and another armed man as Stranger Number 2 in the official record. Reading out from her records, she said the strangers called out: "Sit down, this is a civil coup by the people. Nobody move, nobody will get hurt." She recorded the initial resistance offered by the Speaker, Dr. Apenisa Kurisaqila, who protested that the coup was illegal. As the "strangers" shouted to the Speaker to direct the MPs to remain still or they would be shot, he retorted: "If you have to shoot anyone, shoot me first." However, one of the armed "strangers" fired two shots at the ceiling, which eventually forced the Opposition MPs to leave the chamber.

Seniloli Muacavu described how she and her colleagues were forced to lie down on the floor of the House along with Indo-Fijian MPs until Sunday morning. An MP taken hostage, Leo Smith, testified that they were cuffed with plastic straps and that Fijian and General Voter MPs were taken to the Prime Minister's conference room. Later Speight came there and told them that the Army and the police backed the coup, and Silatolu was named interim Prime Minister by the hostage takers. Later that day they heard that the Army was divided over the coup and that there was talk of appointing a military commander.

The former head of the Government Printery, Pio Bosco Tikosuva, testified that he had initially refused to print decrees written by Speight as "taukei civilian takeover leader" and by Silatolu as "interim Prime Minister". But he gave in when Speight told him that the decrees would be printed by force, the witness said.

In his opening statement, the state prosecutor, Peter Ridgeway, said that there was evidence to establish that the two defendants had known about the coup plot. They were in constant touch with each other in the week before the coup and were part of the "inner circle" of people who were aware of the plans for May 19. Telephone records showed that they were in constant touch with each other and George Speight, and with Iliesa Duvuloco, who led a civilian march through Suva, the capital, on the day of the coup. The records showed that 80 phone calls were made between them during that period, including the night and the morning of the coup. The prosecution also showed video and television clips of Speight and Silatolu addressing journalists and crowds on the Parliament lawns during the hostage crisis. The trial there is to continue after a short recess.

In another trial, Viliame Savu, a Fijian nationalist, was awarded a two-year sentence for failing to inform the authorities about the plot to overthrow the government. In a statement to the police, Savu had related that members of four Fijian political parties, who were planning to hold a march through Suva on May 19, were told by Speight that a coup would take place on that day.

The treason trial follows a military court verdict holding 15 men of a crack Army division guilty of mutiny against the lawful authority. The leader of the mutineers, Captain Shane Stevens, was awarded a life sentence by the military court for mutiny and inciting soldiers to mutiny. Another officer, Colonel Ilaisa Kacisolomone, got a 15-year jail term for mutiny and other 13 mutineers were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 18 months to three years. Though an armed gang of civilians, the hostage-takers had support from some members of an elite group, the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Unit of the Fijian Army. The coup was planned and helped by officers, both serving and retired, of this shadowy unit. Five months after the civilian coup, men of the elite group attempted a mutiny at the Queen Elizabeth barracks in Suva. The mutiny failed, but eight men, both rebels and soldiers, were killed. According to the commander of the Fiji Armed Forces, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the mutiny was triggered by his decision to disband the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Unit.

The political vacuum that prevailed during the 56 days Bainimarama negotiated with the gunmen plunged the country into a cycle of rioting and racially motivated strife. Even after law and order was restored, the feelings aroused during the coup continued to simmer. Hardline politicians have played on the fear among the ethnic Fijian community of being swamped by the economically dominant Indian community.

The failed mutiny brought out into the open the rift among the ethnic Fijians. In the first coup in Fiji in 1987, armed forces had fully supported the overthrow of the government. The May 2000 takeover showed up the schisms within the Army and the police forces. The armed action was clearly not a military coup, but an operation by a few disgruntled individuals who made chauvinistic appeals to gain support of a section of the Fijians. The security forces had become increasingly politicised after the 1987 coup, and those who planned the takeover were able to rope in some members of the crack Army unit. The event had been projected as an overthrow of an Indian-dominated regime to restore political power to indigenous Fijians. The mutiny showed that Speight's operation was not aimed at merely removing a "government led by an Indian", but to bring back a more malleable regime where he and people like him could prosper.

There had been a great deal of apprehension in Suva that the trial of George Speight and his armed gang, held earlier this year, would exacerbate extremist, radical feelings among a section of Fijians. But the trial had a dramatic end, as Speight pleaded guilty to the charge of treason. A mandatory sentence of death by hanging was pronounced, but before the day was over the President commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, on a recommendation by the Mercy Commission. As the accused had pleaded guilty, no evidence was heard during the trial. Though the tense security situation was defused, the rapid disposal of the case left a widespread belief that the guilty plea prevented the exposure of the larger conspiracy behind the coup.

The political and civil disturbances of mid-2000 severely disturbed the rule of law in the islands. Factionalism and provincial jealousies surfaced in the armed forces as well as among the police. There was a strong feeling that the issues thrown up during the upheaval needed to be addressed and that there could be no rapprochement without it. Accountability for the crimes had to be established in order to restore respect for law. Civil society organisations have said that it is essential for the disgruntled youth to realise that violence does not pay. One social activist has reported that there is a much higher incidence of violence in Fijian society after the coup. Even the traditional Fijian tribal leadership has been affected by the violent reactions to established authority.

General elections were held in September 2001, and these brought an elected government to power, headed by Laisinia Qarese, a former banker. The elections took place in an atmosphere of sharply polarised ethnic loyalties and thus saw the defeat of moderate candidates.

The treason trial has brought out evidence of a wide conspiracy behind the coup and the fact that the government failed to get intelligence about the conspiracy despite the open rumblings of discontent among hardline Fijian factions. It has confirmed fears that several of those involved in the eight-week-long crisis still hold important positions. Politically volatile Fiji's public institutions will continue to decline unless indiscipline is punished and accountability is established in public life. Ethnic problems aside, the growth of factionalism and provincialism among the Fijian tribes has added to the instability in Fiji's society. One observer in Suva wrote, "Not all Fijians supported the coup. We need to go through this churning to learn who were all the people who wanted to get political power through short cuts. Pushing things under the carpet just makes them fester."

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