Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Fiji VP, legislator among 5 sentenced in ethnic-bias coup

AP , SUVA, FIJI

Fiji's vice president was sentenced to four years in prison on Friday for his role in a 2000 coup that ousted the first ethnic Indian prime minister in this South Pacific island nation.

Vice President Jope Seniloli had been convicted the day before of administering an illegal oath of office when he swore in the rebel government of ethnic Fijian nationalist George Speight after the May 2000 coup.

Four other defendants -- Parliament's Deputy Speaker Rakuita Vakalalabure and three businessmen -- were imprisoned for between one year and six years after being convicted on the same charge.

Imposing the sentences, Judge Nazhat Shameem said there were "elements of betrayal" in the men's actions "which I cannot ignore." Seniloli, who had faced a maximum life sentence for his actions, will be stripped of his vice president's post.

The conviction cleared the way for Fiji to begin searching for a new vice president.

Vakalalabure was imprisoned for six years. He loses his job and seat in Parliament as a result of the conviction and prison term. A lawyer, he previously served as a Fiji state prosecutor.

Opposition leader Mick Beddoes praised the convictions as marking "the re-emergence of law and order in Fiji."

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said he had "great sympathy for these indigenous Fijians" who "had the courage to be on the side of people who wanted to maintain control of the country by indigenous people."

Describing the men as "victims of very volatile circumstances," who "thought they were doing something for the good of their country," he said further prosecutions for coup crimes "won't help the development of the country."

Speaking in Samoa, where he's attending a summit of South Pacific leaders, Qarase said: "There was no evil intent on their part." He added that it was time for Fiji to have a "day of forgiveness and national reconciliation."

However, Fiji police are expected to announce charges against more coup participants in coming weeks.

The defendants claimed that Speight coerced them into joining the coup, which he said was aimed at restoring 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.

Fiji security forces remained on high alert on Friday around the capital after warning that no protests would be tolerated in the racially divided country. The streets of the capital were quiet after Thursday's verdict and remained peaceful on Friday.

Seniloli had been a minor provincial administrator and traditional chief before he was sworn in as president after Speight overthrew Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, an ethnic Indian.

Speight is serving a life sentence for treason after being arrested in the coups's aftermath.

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