Fri, Aug 06, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Fiji court convicts vice president for role in 2000 coup

AP , SUVA, FIJI

Fiji's High Court convicted the vice president yesterday for his role in a 2000 nationalist coup that ousted the first ethnic Indian prime minister in this South Pacific islands nation.

Vice President Jope Seniloli was accused of backing the two-month coup led by ethnic Fijian nationalist George Speight, and briefly serving as the country's president. Seniloli was convicted of administering an illegal oath of office, for swearing in Speight and a group of ministers in the rebel government.

The four other defendants, parliament's Deputy Speaker Rakuita Vakalalabure and three businessmen, were convicted on the same charge. Judge Nazhat Shamem ordered them detained pending sentencing today.

The defendants claimed they were coerced into participating in the coup by Speight, who said he wanted to restore power to indigenous Fijians.

But prosecutors said they weren't forced and that Seniloli knew about the coup before it took place on May 19, 2000.

There was no immediate reaction to the verdicts from the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. Fiji security forces were on high alert around the capital, Suva, after warning that no protests would be tolerated in the racially divided country.

Seniloli had been a minor provincial administrator and traditional chief in Tailevu province, where Speight and other key coup plotters hailed. He was sworn in as president after Speight overthrew prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry -- an ethnic Indian -- but only held the role briefly.

Chaudhry's ethnic-Indian dominated Cabinet and lawmakers from his Fiji Labor Party were held hostage for 56 days by the coup plotters before they gave in to military authorities.

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