Thursday, August 09, 2012

What Freedom in Fiji?

FIJIAN Isimeli "Bale" Bailewai, a former Lance Corporal in the British Army who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, has been given discretionary leave to remain in Britain while he appeals against deportation.

Soldiers from the Commonwealth can normally claim citizenship after four years' service. Bailewai, known to friends as Bale, has a British wife and two children. But under new rules he faced an 'automatic' denial due to a disciplinary procedure following a brawl in 2010.

There were reportedly five witnesses ready to testify that the incident in 2010 was self-defence, but Bailewai waived the right to legal counsel as he "just wanted it to go away".

There has been a public outcry over the way this ex-soldier has been treated, and a petition on his behalf. Now Bale and his family have been given a temporary breather, but the threat of deporatation remains.

Reading about this, I thought I should catch up on news about Fiji, to see what sort of life awaits in this Commonwealth "island paradise" which has seen two military coups in the past dozen years.

Item one: Fiji Trades Union Congress leader Felix Anthony has rejected the interim government’s claim that he did not file a complaint with police against the leader of the Fiji regime. The Permanent Secretary of Information, Sharon Smith-Johns, says Mr Anthony has reported some members of the military but neither the Prime Minister nor the Fijian government was included in the complaint.

Mr Anthony says he detailed last month to the Lautoka Police threats and assaults against him by military officers in February last year. He says he was punched and kicked by at least five soldiers, leaving him with a damaged eardrum and bruising that needed medical care.

He said he finally made the report after eighteen months after being urged to do so by authorities.

“The nature of the complaint was that I was assaulted by some military officers. The second part of the complaint was that the threat was made by the Prime Minister to me and my colleague. I actually named the Prime Minister and I quoted what he had actually said.”

Mr Anthony says he was given a case number and medical forms to fill in. He said he was told police will start investigating and they would keep him informed. Police have now declined to comment. In April, the military denied the allegations, with its spokesman saying if the complainants can give proof of an assault, it should be to the police.

The Information Ministry said at the time it couldn’t make any comments regarding the military.

Next, how is Fiji progressing towards restoring parliamentary democracy?

Several leading Fiji non government organisations have raised concerns about the legitimacy of the country’s constitution making process. FemLINKPACIFIC, the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement also question the interim government’s so-called non-negotiable principles, its demand for immunity and the continuing constraints on the media.

Don Wiseman reports:

“They say next year’s Constituent Assembly should be made up of people who are truly representative of Fiji, not those hand-picked by the State. The groups say many of the non-negotiable principles are laudable but it is not for the State to dictate them. And they point out many key principles, such as freedom of expression and association, are missing. They say issues such as immunity have to be widely debated to encourage an atmosphere of justice, reconciliation and forgiveness. And the groups say it is common knowledge the media, though it is not directly censored, operates under pressure from the authorities. They say at the very least, there must be a strong assurance from Commodore Bainimarama guaranteeing freedom to the media, including the right to criticise his government.”

Well that's what opposition groups say, but how about an outside observer's view?

The Law Society of England and Wales has attacked Fiji's interim government for taking contempt procedings against the Citizen's Consitutional Forum.

Nigel Dodds, the Chair of the Law Society Charity, says the contempt proceedings are a "monstrous assault" on free speech.

Interviewed on ABC Australian radio, Mr.Dodds says:

"Well, I was there in November of last year and I produced a report which has been approved by the Law Society of England and Wales and we have found that there is a significant absence of process and procedures, conditions of the rule of law in Fiji. These involve principle lack of freedom of association, a lack of freedom of expression, and most particularly an inability of Fijian citizens to be able to make any lawful challenge against the actions of the government".

From time to time we hear about people accused or even convicted on serious criminal charges such as inciting or carrying out acts of terrorism, who cannot be deported or extradited for fear they might face ill-treatment or torture under some dictatorial regime. (Though in the case of Italian fascists for example they could not be extradited to face criminal charges because either the Home Office seemed to lose the papers or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office looked after its friends).

Perhaps Bale would be safer here if he had been a serious criminal or convicted terrorist rather than merely a soldier who evidently defended himself in a barracks fight.

And should any of the Fijian military who have made coups and ruled by force be obliged in future to flee to these shores, what's the betting our government would welcome them, especially if they come with loot?

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