3 Jan 2012

End of Fiji martial law cautiously welcomed

2:48 pm on 3 January 2012

New Zealand's two main opposition parties are welcoming moves to end martial law in Fiji, but say it's too early for sanctions to be lifted.

Interim prime minister Frank Bainimarama made the announcement during his New Year speech, saying people can debate a new constitution ahead of the election in 2014.


Commodore Bainimarama says the Public Emergency Regulations imposed in 2009 will be lifted on Saturday. The regulations give police and the military extended powers, censor the media and restrict public assembly.

Since a coup in 2000, New Zealand has imposed sanctions, including a travel ban to this country for any member of the Fiji Military Force.

The Labour Party's foreign affairs spokesperson, Phil Goff, says New Zealand should look at relaxing those sanctions if it sees evidence of change in Fiji.

"I think it's really important to engage with Fiji, to encourage the restoration of democracy and human rights. But what we'll want to see is a move towards free elections, an independent judiciary and a media that's not subject to censorship.

Mr Goff says the timing of Commodore Bainimarama's announcement came as a surprise, but should be welcomed.

The Green Party is also welcoming the end of martial law in Fiji but says democratic elections must go ahead before New Zealand should consider lifting its sanctions.

The Green Party's foreign affairs spokesperson, Kennedy Graham, says Fiji lifting emergency regulations is a positive move but it should be remembered Commodore Bainimarama is leading an illegal regime.

Mr Graham says Fiji needs to change its government before any sanctions are lifted.

Commonwealth secretary-general Kamalesh Sharma says it is a positive step that was long overdue.

Mr Sharma says he hopes national consultations on a new constitution starting in February will be fully inclusive and clear the way for credible elections and the return of a democratically-elected government without further delay.

Pro-democracy advocates also welcome the end to martial law, but some question how much freedom the military will really allow.

A spokesperson for the New Zealand-based Fiji Indian Association, Salim Singh, says it is a small step towards political normality for the Pacific nation.

But the announcement has come just two days after the arrest by the military of businesswoman Mere Samisoni, who has been charged with sedition.

In a blog, her daughter Vanessa Charters says Dr Samisoni had made a confession, but it was a farce because her lawyer was not with her at the time.

The spokesperson for the Coalition for Democracy in Fiji, Nik Naidu, says lifting martial law is positive, but the military will probably continue to detain people against their will.

"They still have the military regime and total control and power in Fiji. All they've really done is lifted the emergency regulations, which allow freer movement and, theoretically, people being able to express their opinions in a more open way. But time will tell."

Some restrictions remain

Fiji's Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum says when martial law is lifted the new freedoms will apply to everyone.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum says people will now be allowed to meet in groups and criticise the government, but there will be some restrictions.

"Of course, there are restrictions, as you would have in New Zealand. It does not allow you to go and make a hate speech; you don't go round defaming people.

"There are various laws which were in place before the emergency regulations - those laws still apply."