A former Fijian prime minister and coup leader appeared in court yesterday accused of inciting a military mutiny in 2000 in which eight soldiers were killed, as voting neared an end in parliamentary elections.
Military strongman Sitiveni Rabuka entered no plea when he appeared in court in the South Pacific islands' capital Suva, but told journalists outside he was not guilty. He was released on bail to appear again on June 30.
Rabuka was arrested and charged late on Thursday on his return from India where he had knee surgery.
Rabuka was alleged to have incited a former senior military officer, Lieutenant Colonel Viliame Seruvakula, in July 2000 to oust military commander Voreqe Bainimarama, who still leads the armed forces, Fijian media reports said.
Bail was set at 1,000 Fijian dollars (US$580) and Rabuka was ordered to surrender his passport, refrain from interfering with witnesses and report regularly to the police.
Rabuka has previously been linked to the unsuccessful Nov. 2 military mutiny at Fiji's military headquarters, the Queen Elizabeth Barracks, which occurred in the wake of the May 2000 coup.
Rabuka was seen inside the barracks during the uprising, which forced Bainimarama to flee for his life.
Rabuka led two military coups in 1987, the first of which deposed the government of the ethnic-Indian dominated Fijian Labor Party.
He later served as prime minister of a democratically elected government between 1992 and 1999, when the Labor Party's Mahendra Chaudhry was elected as Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister.
Chaudhry was deposed a year later when he and his government were held hostage by an armed group led by nationalist businessman George Speight.
The arrest comes on the second last day of week-long parliamentary elections in which Chaudhry's Labor Party is trying to win back power from Laisenia Qarase's indigenous Fijian-dominated United Fiji Party.
Qarase has said indigenous Fijians will not accept an ethnic Indian prime minister and that a win for Chaudhry could spark another coup.
Bainimarama, who took control and ended the 2000 coup before handing power to an interim government led by Qarase, last year threatened to oust Qarase's government over plans to offer amnesties to coup figures.
The commander has also threatened to lock up Qarase and other government-aligned politicians for saying a Labor win would lead to further instability.
Fiji Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes said the timing of Rabuka's arrest during the election was coincidental.
The recommendation to charge the former prime minister came from the director of public prosecutions when Rabuka was about to travel overseas for medical treatment and the arrest was made when he returned.
"This has nothing to do with the general election, it is quite separate," he said.
Hughes added he had no concerns about security during the election as a result of Rabuka's arrest.