Trials since the 2000 Fijian coup d'état

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A number of prominent participants in the 2000 Fijian coup d'état were tried, and some convicted, in 2004 and 2005. Many of those tried include Cabinet Minister, parliamentarians, and others who have links to the present government, which has come under criticism from some quarters for releasing on parole some of the persons convicted.

Strained relationships among some of Fiji's senior judges have raised some concerns about the conduct of the trials. The Fiji Sun claimed on 3 November 2005 that documents in their possession revealed that three Justices - Nazhat Shameem, Anthony Gates and John Byrne - had written to Chief Justice Daniel Fatiaki asking that Justice Michael Scott be excluded from any Supreme Court panel hearing appeals against any of their cases, saying that Scott had exercised "extreme hostility" toward them ever since the upheaval of 2000. They alleged that he had demanded an inquiry into their conduct and had threatened to sue them on his own retirement from the bench. Shameem unsuccessfully applied to have Scott excluded from the panel hearing the appeal of former Senator Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure, who was convicted by Shameem of coup-related offences.

Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes revealed on 4 January 2006 that 782 individuals had been charged and convicted for 28 types of offences in relation to the coup.

Timoci Silatolu and Josefa Nata[edit]

Timoci Silatolu, sometimes known as Ratu Timoci Silatolu, and Josefa Nata, were convicted of treason on 21 March 2003. They were sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum term of 9 years for Silatolu and 7 years for Nata. Silatolu, a disgruntled back-bench MP in the Chaudhry government, had made a crucial telephone call on the day of the coup, alerting his to-conspirators that the time was right for it, and was subsequently appointed to George Speight's rebel cabinet, first as Prime Minister then as Deputy Prime Minister after Speight himself claimed the office. Justice Andrew Wilson found that Silatolu and Nata, a journalist, had told many lies in their defence. In June that year, the pair were sentenced to life imprisonment. They had earlier rejected plea bargaining, refusing an offer of a seven-year sentence if they pleaded guilty.

On 15 July 2005, the Court of Appeal ordered the government to provide Silatolu and Nata with a lawyer for their pending appeal.

At a court appearance on 15 September 2005, High Court Justice Gerard Winter refused an application from Silatolu's lawyer, Inoke Josefa, to require the Military to produce the results of an inquiry it had conducted into the 2000 crisis, accepting their objection that it could compromise national security. Silatolu made a second attempt to force the release of the inquiry on 21 October. Meanwhile, the trial has been adjourned until 16 November. He partially reversed this decision on 27 January 2006, however; he would order the documents to be released, he said - but only after studying them himself to ensure that they did not threaten national security.

Fiji Village quoted Military lawyer Major Ana Rokomokoti on 7 February as saying that the Military would seek a stay order on Winter's decision that he should be allowed to view the documents, which the Military declared to be top secret. On the 8th, Winter gave the Military till the 14th to file affidavits, pending his ruling on the 23rd. On the 23rd, however, a stay order was placed, and it was announced that a decision would be made the following week as to whether the documents could be declassified and used as defence evidence by plaintiffs.

Fiji Live reported on 4 March that earlier in the week, Winter had ruled against the Military's request. Winter will now view the documents privately, before deciding whether to make them available to defendants.

The Fiji Times reported on 1 March that lawyer Abhay Singh had called for Silatolu and Nata to be given a retrial, accusing Justice Andrew Wilson of having been biased in his judgement. "Judge Andrew Wilson was imbalanced in his summing up of the case ... the learned judge made his directions to the assessors on behalf of the prosecution thus influencing the assessors' decisions in that my clients were guilty as charged," he alleged.

Justice Gordon Ward in the Court of Appeal dismissed Silatolu and Nata's appeal. Lawyer Abhay Singh announced his intention to lodge a further appeal with the Supreme Court.

Ratu Jope Seniloli and Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure[edit]

On 6 August 2004 Jope Seniloli, the then Vice-President, was convicted of falsely swearing in ministers in 2000, and was sentenced to four years' imprisonment. Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure, the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, was also convicted and imprisoned for the same offence. Ratu Viliame Volavola, Peceli Rinakama, and Viliame Savu were convicted with them, and sentenced to three-year prison terms. On 25 May 2005, the High Court upheld a decision by the parliamentary Speaker, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, to expel Vakalalabure for nonattendance.

Ostensibly for "health" reasons, Seniloli was paroled on 29 November 2004, having served less than four months of his sentence, generating a storm of protests from the Indo-Fijian dominated opposition and, significantly, from the ethnic Fijian-dominated military. On grounds of good behaviour, Volavola and Rinakama in turn were released on 17 December 2005 to serve the remainder of their sentences extramurally.

Apisai Tora[edit]

On 3 November 2004, Senator Apisai Tora (71), along with 11 other men - Peniasi Sabolo (62), Viliame Rakubuli (71), Paula Saukuru (53), Napolioni Vasu (69), Mosese Tuisa (59), Peni Raicebe (60), Vela Tawake (44), Ananaisa Mocei (42), Apenisa Nayate (51), Aca Tuigaloa Sakuru (49) and Kinisimere Qoro (58), and one woman - Peniasi Qoro (27) - were acquitted in the Nadi Court of charges of unlawful assembly, for allegedly seizing a military checkpoint on Queen's Highway in the Nadi suburb of Sabeto on 13 July 2000. Magistrate Syed Muhktar Shah said he found "extraordinary" and "alarming" discrepancies in police statements and court testimonies, and also said that the accused had not been informed of their rights under Fiji's Bill of Rights.

The Department of Public Prosecutions filed an appeal, and on 19 September, High Court Justice John Connors overturned Shah's decision to acquit Tora and his accomplices. He remanded them on F$500 bail pending sentencing in the last week of September.

On 27 September, Tora was sentenced to eight months' imprisonment and his accomplices to four months each. Justice Connors said that the offenses were too serious to warrant a suspended sentence or a fine, and a custodial sentenced had to be imposed. He also said that Tora, a Turaga ni Yavusa (tribal chief) had failed in his obligation to set a good example for his people to follow, as had his fellow-accused, who he said were all mature adults and leaders in the community. "Those with the authority to lead have an obligation to lead in the right direction and not to encourage others to break the law," Connors said.

Tora agreed that he had led his villagers astray, but insisted that he had done so only with a view to getting the attention of the Military and the Great Council of Chiefs, to hasten the appointment of Ratu Josefa Iloilo to the Presidency. He told the court through his lawyer that as he was the one who had led his villagers to commit the offence, he wished to bear the full brunt of the law, and hoped that his fellow-accused would be dealt with leniently.

Tora's lawyer, Iqbal Khan, has applied for bail, pending an appeal against the sentence.

Senator Ratu Inoke Takiveikata[edit]

On 23 November 2004, Senator Ratu Inoke Takiveikata, the Qaranivalu (a senior chief) of Naitasiri, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for facilitating the mutiny at Queen Elizabeth Barracks on 2 November 2000. He was found guilty of giving both moral and practical support to the mutiny, in which four soldiers were killed and four mutineers subsequently beaten to death after the failure of the mutiny. Among other things, he was found to have supplied cellphones to the rebels.

Lautoka lawyer Iqbal Khan announced on 30 August 2005 that he had filed an application on behalf of Takiveikata and Vakalalabure, to have their convictions quashed. Khan claimed that the two had been denied a fair trial according to Section 29 of the Constitution of Fiji, as the trial assessors had been handpicked and therefore possibly biased.

Filipo Tarakinikini[edit]

On 5 November 2000, New Zealand's Foreign Minister Phil Goff publicly accused Lieutenant Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini, who had served as the Military's principal spokesman during the main events of the coup, of complicity in the mutiny that had taken place four days earlier, leaving eight soldiers dead. Tarakinikini angrily denied the charges, but the Military ordered an investigation. Tarakinikini left Fiji shortly afterwards, to take up a post as a security adviser at the United Nations in New York. He continues to hold this position as of November 2005, but the Military has continued in its efforts to deport him from the United States to face a court martial in Fiji over the allegations. His resignation from the Army, delivered to President Ratu Josefa Iloilo in 2002, was rejected by the President at the request of the Military commander, Commodore Bainimarama.

Tarakinikini is fighting the President's refusal of his resignation in the courts. The trial was supposed to begin on 12 September 2005, but was postponed because Tarakinikini's lawyer, Samuela Matawalu, was recovering from a minor stroke. On 30 November, High Court Justice Gerald Winter scheduled a hearing for 22 February 2006 and ordered Matawalu to file submissions by 16 January, and the President's Office to reply by 17 February.

Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu and Senator Ratu Josefa Dimuri[edit]

The political fallout from the coup continued into 2005. On April 3, 2005, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu (the Tui Cakau and Minister for Lands and Natural Resources), Senator Ratu Josefa Dimuri, Ratu Rokodewala Niumataiwalu (the Tui Wailevu), and Ratu Viliame Rovabokola (the Tui Nadogo), were convicted of unlawful assembly for having met with the plotters while the coup was in progress, and were imprisoned for eight months.

On 14 April, Lalabalavu and Dimuri were released on parole, after having served only eleven days of their eight-month sentence. This provoked an angry reaction from the opposition Fiji Labour Party and from the Citizens Constitutional Forum. Poseci Bune, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, called their release "a travesty of justice and made a mockery of the country's judicial system," and accused the government of perverting the course of justice in order to retain the support of its coalition partner. Akuila Yabaki of the Citizens Constitutional forum concurred, saying that the decision smacked of political interference in the judicial process, showed disrespect to the court, and abused principles of equal treatment.

The Fiji Military Forces added its own voice to the criticism on 17 April. In a strongly worded statement, Commodore Frank Bainimarama said that he was "frustrated, disturbed, and disappointed" by the decision which, he said, "made a mockery of the military, police, and the judiciary." He went on to emphasize that he was speaking on behalf of the military, not only for himself. His outburst provoked a strong response from Home Affairs Minister Josefa Vosanibola, who warned him that he would face "discipline" if he did not cease making statements to the media without consulting him. The row escalated, with Bainimarama saying on 19 April that he would not be silenced. Army spokesman Captain Neumi Leweni also issued his own statement supporting Bainimarama's criticism of government policy. Leweni also criticized Aisea Taoka, Fiji's Commissioner of Prisons, for his role in the release of the two chiefs, and also hinted darkly of "secret forces in place before the actual release" - believed to be a veiled reference to political intervention in the course of justice. He said that persons convicted of politically motivated crimes "should not be classified as ordinary prisoners" and indicated that early release should not be an option for them. On 20 April, Vosanibola said that he would not be "intimidated" by Bainimarama's comments to the media, and reiterated his threat to take unspecified disciplinary actions against him if he did not cease making public statements without consulting him.

A month before their expiry of their sentences, Rovabokola and Niumataiwalu were released on parole on 4 August, to serve the remainder of their sentences extramurally. Poor health and old age (both are over 70) were cited as reasons for their early release. Niumataiwalu suffers from high blood pressure and swelling of the feet, while Rovabokola has heart complications.

Tevita Bukarau, Metuisela Mua, Viliame Sausauwai, Eroni Lewaqai, and Joji Bakoso[edit]

On 27 April 2004, five persons, including Tevita Bukarau, the former chief military lawyer, and Metuisela Mua, former director of the Fiji Intelligence Service, were convicted of consorting with people carrying firearms. They were also found guilty on two counts of unlawful assembly. "I am satisfied that each of the accused consorted, that is, 'spent time, associated' and were in harmony with the crowd and with George Speight. They were also in company of persons who were carrying or had possession of arms and ammunitions," declared Magistrate Ajmal Khan. Khan refused bail to the defendants, and remanded them in custody pending sentencing. He rejected their defence that they had gone to the Parliamentary complex and met with Speight in order to negotiate an end to the crisis. "I find they knew [in advance] of the illegal takeover of Parliament by George Speight and his men's activities, and had full knowledge of the guns and hostage situation during the duration of the May 19 to July 2000," Khan said.

On 5 May, Khan sentenced Bukaru and Mua, as well as a third defendant, former politician Eroni Lewaqai, to prison terms of two and a half years. Two other defendants, Viliame Sausauwai and Joji Bakoso, received terms of two years and fifteen months, respectively. Lewaqai had been sworn in, illegally, as a Cabinet Minister, while the other two had attended meetings on Speight's executive committee.

The five reappeared in court before Justice Nazhat Shameem on 11 July to appeal their sentences. On 17 September, Justice Anthony Gates announced that their appeal would be heard on 14 October, but at their appearance on that date, Justice Shameem agreed to adjourn the hearing to 4 November, as their lawyers were not present. It was subsequently postponed till 8 November. The five appealed on the grounds that there was a five-year interval between their initial arrest and the beginning of the trial. After viewing TV footage of the coup events for clarification, Justice Shameem dismissed the appeal on 18 November, saying that they had received less than the maximum sentence allowed, namely four years imprisonment and a fine of $2000.

Fiji Live reported on 27 January 2006 that Mua, Bukarau, and Lewaqai had applied for a Compulsory Supervision Order, meaning in effect that they had applied to be released on parole; the Fiji Sun reported the next day that all five had applied. Attorney-General Qoriniasi Bale said that he was awaiting a report from Prisons Commissioner Aisea Taoka before making a decision. Taoka said that he would finalize his report in his own time. "The AG will just have to wait because I will not be rushed," the Sun quoted him as saying.

Bale told Fiji Live on 20 February that he had received the applications, but declined to comment on whether any decision had been made.

On 7 March, Attorney-General Qoriniasi Bale refused he applications of Mua, Bukarau, Bakoso, and Sausauwai to serve the remainder of their sentences extramurally.

Unless released early, the men are due for release in 2007.

Simione Kaitani, Levani Tonitonivanua, Eroni Lewaqai, Viliame Sausauwai, and Antonio Tanaburenisau[edit]

On 23 May 2005, Transport Minister Simione Kaitani appeared in court along with four other defendants, Levani Tonitonivanua, Eroni Lewaqai, Viliame Sausauwai, and Antonio Tanaburenisau on charges of having taken an illegal oath of ministerial office during the coup, on 20 May 2000. Tanaburenisau, who had already admitted the charge on 22 April, apologised. The others, including Kaitani, all pleaded not guilty. The trial of all except Tanaburenisau began on 17 June. A number of witnesses were summoned, among them the Parliamentary Secretary, Mary Chapman, and Senator Mitieli Bulanauca, who was given immunity to testify.

On 20 June, former Cabinet Minister Tu'uakitau Cokanauto testified. He, too, had been approached by Speight to join the Taukei Cabinet, he said, but had refused.

Former Fiji Television cameraman Trevor Whippy and policewoman Sainimili Cavuilati testified on 7 July. Cavuilati said that she met Lewaqai on May 20, 2000, the day of the coup, and that he told her he had been appointed Assistant Minister for Urban Development in the rebel cabinet. Whippy, for his part, said that he did not see any of the accused taking an oath or signing any documents.

On 25 July, Kaitani claimed that he could not remember signing any Oath of Allegiance to be part of Speight's rebel cabinet. In a written statement, he said that he remembered signing many papers, but no oath of office. On 1 August, Kaitani's defence lawyers Iqbal Khan and Rabo Matebalavu called for the charges against Kaitani and his fellow-accused to be dismissed on the grounds that twelve state witnesses who testified, including New Zealand Police handwriting expert David Boot, had failed to conclusively link the accused to their alleged crime. Judge Anthony Gates dismissed the application on 9 August, however, ordering the trial to continue.

Also on 9 August, Kaitani filed an unsworn statement in court that he had deliberately remained in the parliamentary complex during the upheaval, not to support the rebels, but to use his skills as a qualified conflict management trainer to calm the situation. "In my professional capacity, I simply could not leave the parliamentary complex and watch it being taken over," he said. "I decided to take the bull by the horn and remain there." Along with Tonitonivanua, Lewaqai and Sausauwai, he continued to deny having taken an oath or signing an oath. "I did not take an oath of allegiance or sign any documents," he declared, adding that the first he knew of his alleged unconstitutional ministerial appointment was from a newspaper.

He said that of the ten thousand people who had gathered in the parliamentary complex when the crisis was at its height, not one had seen him taking an oath or signing any documents. He questioned why the three alleged witnesses, including former Vice-President Seniloli, had not been called to give evidence against him.

Tonitonivanua said that when the police and army had raided his home with a search warrant, he had told them they could write whatever they wished. Sausauwai, for his part, claimed that the police had extorted a false confession out of him, while Lewaqai complained that he had not been allowed to call his lawyer during the police interview.

Lawyers for the accused attacked the credibility of state witnesses, claiming that Boot had failed to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that the signatures on the ministerial oath forms were those of the accused.

In her summing up, however, state prosecutor Ashishna Prasad said that in the course of several police interviews, neither Kaitani nor his fellow accused had denied their involvement in the swearing-in ceremony on 20 May 2000. All of them, she said, had been seen to have spent two minutes in a room with Seniloli, who had been appointed President by Speight, after which they gave one another congratulatory handshakes when they left. She rejected Kaitani's defence that he "shook hands with everyone he meets to express the love and affection of God", saying it was a clear indication that he had sworn a ministerial oath. She quoted Kaitani as having told the police, "Yes, it looks like mine" when shown the oath form. She further alleged that Kaitani had insisted on having his name correctly typed on the form where that of Ratu Kinijoji Maivalili, who had declined appointment to the Primary Industries portfolio, had been crossed out. The others had also confirmed their signatures on the document, she said.

Five court assessors found Kaitani and his co-accused not guilty on 12 August. Judge Anthony Gates ratified their decision on 15 August. He said that the prosecution had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendants were guilty of the charges specified. "The State's case relied on certain key witnesses as its supporting pillars," Gates said. "If the pillars of the case were not ultimately to be relied on, the house which the prosecution sought to build would collapse. This appears to have been the result in this case ... each of the three central pillars of the evidence upon which the prosecution relied, possessed potential and obvious defects ... (that) could properly give rise to reasonable doubt about the guilt of each of the accused." He declared Kaitani and his fellow-accused acquitted.

On 16 August, Tanaburenisau was handed a suspended sentence for his admitted taking of an illegal oath of office. Justice Gates sentenced the 57-year-old Tanaburenisau to a two-year prison term, suspended on condition that he remain out of trouble during the term of the sentence. Gates said that Tanaburenisau's role had been a relatively minor one, that he had gotten "carried away" and had acted without thinking of the consequences to himself or to his fellow-citizens. Gates said that he had taken Tanaburenisau's age into account, along with the fact that he had pleaded guilty, apologised, and expressed genuine remorse for his actions. Tanaburenisau thanked the court for the suspended sentence, saying that his offence warranted a custodial sentence. He said that he was deeply sorry that his own errors of judgement had caused so much pain.

Jemesa Lawebuka, Filimone Vadei, Lepani Raitila, Sesoni Sabera[edit]

It was announced on 6 December 2005 that charges were expected to be laid against a further 98 individuals, with four appearing in court that morning on unlawful assembly charges. The four - Jemesa Lawebuka, Filimone Vadei, Lepani Raitila, and Sesoni Sabera - had been arrested along with George Speight and his rebel group at Kalabu Fijian School in 2001. All four pleaded guilty, and Magistrate Ajmal Gulab Khan sentenced them to be bound over for twelve months, with a fine of F$300 each. They had not been the leaders of the Kalabu roadblock, Khan considered, but mere sheep following orders. Their decision to plead guilty had also allowed them a discount on what their sentence would have been.

Mele Afu[edit]

On 20 January 2006 Mele Afu, a 43-year old woman from Narere, Koro Island, appeared in court facing a larceny of documents charge. The charge relates to her having been found in possession of eight classified military documents, and two documents belonging to the Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji, which Military spokesman Captain Neumi Leweni considered potentially a valuable clue to the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unity (CRW)-led mutiny at Suva's Queen Elizabeth Barracks on 2 November 2000.

According to police Inspector Sekaia Suluka, the following documents were found in Afu's possession:

  1. Command diaries belonging to the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit (CRW).
  2. The minutes of the meetings of the National Security Council in 1999 and 2000.
  3. Civil Aviation Security Decree, and contingency plans.
  4. Photographs and negatives belonging to the CRW.
  5. A 1997 contingency plan for Nadi International Airport.
  6. Threat analysis.
  7. Port Police operation procedures.
  8. A black list roll.
  9. A document pertaining to Soviet and Libyan operations in Fiji.
  10. Briefings from the Indian High Commission.

She was found to be in possession of the documents when arrested on a separate coup-related charge on 21 January 2005, and taken from Koro Island to Suva for questioning. Suluka said that police had discovered the documents in her possession, some of them in her suitcase, while questioning her in Nabua over the destruction of a studio belonging to Fiji Television Limited during the 2000 coup. She had denied knowing that the documents were stolen, saying that former CRW soldier Selestino Kalounivale, a close relative of Afu's, who was killed by loyalist soldiers in the mutiny in which he allegedly participated, had given them to her at the Parliamentary complex at the height of the coup and instructed her to keep them, according to defence lawyer Angeline Lata. Her fears of the Military had inhibited her from returning the documents to them, Afu said. Suluka rejected this defence, saying that her keeping of the documents for five years was an indication that she knew they were stolen.

Leweni said that a Military investigation would be conducted as to how and why Afu came to be in possession of the documents.

On 27 January, Magistrate Ajmal Khan acquitted Afu in the Suva High Court. The prosecution had not provided evidence to support its charges that the documents were original, or that Afu had intentionally stolen them, Khan said. He accepted her defence that she had not known the confidential nature of the documents when Kalounivale had given them to her for safekeeping; Kalounivale, for his part, was dead and therefore could not give evidence, he ruled.

Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit - Court Martial[edit]

On 16 August 2005, the Fiji Court of Appeal delivered a landmark ruling, ordering a retrial of 20 soldiers from the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit (CRW) who had been convicted in a court martial of participating in the 2000 coup and in a subsequent mutiny in November 2000, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and six years. Various legal technicalities have resulted in several adjournments in the court martial retrial since the naming of the court martial panel, under Judge Advocate Graeme Leung, on 5 October.