Speight's surprise

Print edition : March 02, 2002

A swift end to the trial of those who executed the May 2000 coup in Fiji ensures that the truth behind the act will not come out.

THE slow progress towards normalcy in the Fiji Islands after the general elections there five months ago has been disturbed by two judgments in Fiji's courts in February. The first one was a Court of Appeal ruling concerning the formation of a government delivered on a petition filed by the second largest party, the Fiji Labour Party, over its being kept out of the constitutionally mandated multi-party Cabinet. Less than a week later, the trial of the May 2000 coup leader George Speight came to an end, all in a single day, as he pleaded guilty to charges of treason and was awarded the mandatory death penalty and it was reduced to life imprisonment by a presidential order. The swiftness with which the treason trials were concluded came as a surprise, leading to the widespread impression that the disastrous episode of the armed coup was being brushed under the carpet.

George Speight.-REUTERS/FIJI TIMES/ATU RASEA

The trial of those involved in the coup had opened amidst tight security in the capital city of Suva and specifically around the court premises. Various organisations had expressed fears that the court proceedings would exacerbate extremist, radical feelings among a section of indigenous Fijians, which could lead to a repeat of the round of arson and looting that engulfed Suva during the coup. Occasional radical statements from some ethnic Fijian leaders have kept Fiji's ethnic Indian population on edge (Frontline, December 21, 2001). Speight has retained a band of supporters among his kinsmen in the Tailevu province and was elected to the House of Representatives on the nomination of the Conservative Alliance Party, which is a coalition partner of the present government. Speight was unseated when he could not attend two consecutive sessions of Parliament as he was in prison on charges of treason.

George Speight was the leader of the armed gang that stormed Parliament on May 19, 2000. The first Prime Minister of Fiji of Indian descent, Mahendra Chaudhry, was just completing a year in office when the armed men took his entire Cabinet hostage. Speight demanded that the Constitution be revoked as he claimed that ethnic Fijians were getting marginalised in their own country. The crisis lasted 56 days, while the Army negotiated the release of the members of the Cabinet and finally agreed to instal an interim government headed by a former banker, Laisenia Qarase. However, a High Court ruling on a writ petition held illegal the removal of the government and President Josefa Iloilo called for elections in September 2001. In the elections, Qarase's newly formed party, the SDL, emerged as the single largest with 32 seats, while Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party won 27. Qarase formed the government with the support of the People's Alliance after rejecting the party's demand that Speight be awarded amnesty for his role in the overthrow of the previous government.

The passions aroused by the coup leaders have continued to simmer, though the elections in August-September last year brought in a democratically elected government. Their capacity to create mischief had not been contained even after an attempt to mutiny had been brutally put down in November 2000. In early January 2002, the security forces unearthed a conspiracy to kidnap Prime Minister Qarase in order to obtain the release of Speight and his associates. The police obtained information about the plot when one of the ex-servicemen, who had been asked by the conspirators to help in the kidnap, contacted the security forces and revealed the intrigue. The plan involved taking the Prime Minister hostage as he returned from his year-end visit to his village in the Lau Islands.

The supporters of the coup remained firm in their belief that the new government would not deal sternly with their leaders. Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka, who had led the first coup in Fiji in 1987, had been pardoned by the President before he went on to be elected Prime Minister. Just before Speight's trial was due to begin in the Suva High Court, the Cabinet approved an amendment to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment. However, the bill could not be moved in Parliament before the Speight trail. The trial began with a dramatic development: Speight pleaded guilty to the charge of treason, bringing the trial to an immediate end. Justice Michael Scott then pronounced the mandatory sentence of death by hanging. Shortly thereafter, the Mercy Commission headed by the Attorney-General, Qorin-iasi Bale, recommended to the President that the sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. Before the day was out, Speight's sentence was reduced. Meanwhile, the ten co-accused had their charges reduced from treason to wrongful confinement of the members of the government. Upon pleading guilty, they were awarded prison terms ranging from 18 months to three years.

The hasty manner in which the entire proceedings were conducted smacked of a deal between the state prosecutors and the defence lawyers.

A swift end to the painful episode helped restore calm in Suva, but as Fiji Times said in an editorial, "Thanks to Speight's guilty plea, the real truth will never be known." But the extent of security mounted for the trials is an indicator that the radical ethnic Fijian element is still ready to take the law into its own hands.

In a more politically relevant ruling, the Court of Appeal held that the Fiji Labour Party was entitled to be represented in the Cabinet in proportion to its strength in the House of Representatives, according to the Constitution. Under the 1997 Constitution, adopted unanimously by both Houses of Parliament and the Great Council of Chiefs, the supreme body of Fijian tribal chiefs, any political party that obtained 10 per cent or more of the seats in the House has to be included in the Cabinet.

In 1999, when the SVT lost the elections, Chaudhry invited his predecessor, Rabuka to join the Cabinet. But Rabuka refused the offer and later became chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs.

However, the acrimony of the 2001 elections and the personal antagonism between Qarase and Chaudhry did not ensure smooth government formation. Prime Minister Qarase sent a letter of invitation to the Labour Party leader, but adding the rider that he hoped Chaudhry would not accept the offer. Chaudhry accepted the invitation in a letter listing his own conditions. Qarase then chose a Cabinet without any representation from the Labour Party. Subsequently, the Labour Party challenged in the High Court the formation of the government.

The five Judges of the Court of Appeal held that Qarase's invitation to Chaudhry to join his Cabinet was a conditional one, and so was Chaudhry's acceptance of the offer. The court said that a central purpose of the 1997 Constitution is the sharing of power. Political power is to be shared equitably amongst all communities: under Sections 6(l) and 99(3), the Cabinet is to be a multi-party one.

In the early days of his government, Qarase had said he would rather resign than work with Chaudhry in his Cabinet. After the issue was taken to court, he said he would abide by the court's decision. Since the Court of Appeal ruling, Qarase has indicated he would take the matter to the Supreme Court.

Fiji was re-admitted into the Commonwealth in December 2001 on the grounds that a democratically elected government was in place. But the latest events show that the progress towards democratic functioning is not satisfactory. Fijian citizens of Indian descent (44 per cent of the population) were the victims of the civil disturbances in 2000 that followed the ouster of the Chaudhry government. The last elections showed that indigenous Fijians who are in the majority would continue to hold political power as long as they have a Fijian leader who commands the support of the main part of the community. The Qarase government has sought to buy peace with the radical groups by bringing to a swift end the treason case. The Court of Appeal has given its ruling. Qarase won on a popular vote, but he now heads a mainly ethnic Fijian Cabinet. Fiji's future can be nothing but grim if its ruling party plans to deprive a substantial section of its population of a say in the country's political functioning.

Shubha Singh, who has lived and worked in Fiji, is the author of Fiji: A Precarious Coalition (Har Anand, New Delhi, 2001).

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