Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Fiji: A directed verdict?

For the last week, Brigadier General Pita Driti has been on trial on charges of sedition and mutiny over allegations he plotted to overthrow dictator Voreqe Bainimarama. This morning, the panel of three "assessors" - Fiji's equivalent of a jury - acquitted him of both charges. But the judge turned around and convicted him anyway:

One of Fiji's senior military heads has been found guilty of plotting to overthrow strongman Voreqe Bainimarama and planning to kill one of his main supporters.

In a sensational turn, High Court judge Paul Madigan overturned the unanimous findings of a three person assessor or jury panel who earlier this morning found Brigadier General Pita Driti not guilty of the plot.

The evidence heard last week suggests several of Fiji's colonels were also plotting to overthrow Bainimarama in 2010. But Madigan's unusual over-ruling of an assessor panel under-scores the heavy international legal criticism laid against Fiji's judiciary that it is not independent of the military regime.

Overturning the assessor's verdict is perfectly legal, but given the nature of the charges and the doubts that have been raised about the independence of Fiji's judiciary, it smacks of a directed verdict. We'll probably never know whether it was, but Fiji's mickey-mouse colonial relic judicial system does has done itself no favours here, and seems purposely designed to create doubts.

Meanwhile, the case is also another example of the absurdity of sedition laws:
Driti pleaded not guilty to a charge of uttering seditious words which included saying that Sayed-Khaiyum should be removed and that Bainimarama has "lost the plot" and should be removed from leadership.

Neither of these statements would be considered objectionable (or surprising) in a mature democracy. But Fiji is no longer a democracy, and its leaders are not mature. Banning such criticism serves only to prevent scrutiny of their actions, and the resulting lack of accountability directly contributes to the poor governance the coup-mongers complain of.