10 Apr 2009

Fiji president repeals constitution, sacks judges

10:26 pm on 10 April 2009

Fiji's President Ratu Josefa Iloilo has revoked the 1997 constitution following a ruling by the Court of Appeal that the interim government was unlawful, and appointed himself head of state.

The president has revoked all appointments to the judiciary and has said that new appointments will be announced. However, existing laws would continue to apply.

The Fiji Times website reports that President Iloilo will appoint an interim government to rule for the next five years to implement the necessary reforms required for "true democratic and parliamentary elections".

President Iloilo said he would announce a new Cabinet in the next few days and assured citizens that their basic human rights would be protected under the new order, saying he had the full support of all Fiji's security forces.

The Court of Appeal on Thursday declared that the removal of Laisenia Qarase and his ministers from government in a military takeover in December 2006 was unlawful.

The ruling reversed a High Court decision in October last year that found the bloodless coup was legal and that the president had the power to approve and legitimise the interim administration, led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

Media 'closely monitored'

Media in Fiji say the interim military administration has invoked Public Emergency Regulations, which effectively place the Pacific nation under emergency rule.

The country's media have been told they will be closely monitored. The Fiji Times website reports a police officer and a police spokesperson have been stationed in its newsroom since 5.30pm on Friday.

The newspaper's editor, Netani Rika, told Radio New Zealand that all political stories would be monitored by the Ministry of Information.

"The Public Emergency Regulations which have come into force puts certain conditions on the reporting of issues which the Permanent Secretary for Information may see as inciting. We will continue to publish as best we can."

Mr Rika said the situation in Fiji was calm at present.

Backwards step, says NZ

New Zealand's political leaders on Friday were united in their view that the repeal of the constitution is a backwards step that will not foster change or progress within Fiji.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully described the move by President Iloilo as a serious step backwards.

"The president's decision, no doubt prompted by the Commodore (Frank Bainimarama), to override the constitution, sack the judges, and depend upon the military to keep an unlawful regime in power, will compound the already serious economic difficulties confronted by Fiji," Mr McCully said in a statement.

Labour Party leader Phil Goff agreed, telling Radio New Zealand that other Pacific nations were hoping that Fiji would have a chance to return to democracy.

But Mr Goff said the president's decision suggests that the government might be contemplating simply entrenching its military regime. He said that would be cause for huge concern and may stall the regeneration of Fiji's economic and political standing for many years.

Australia on Friday condemned the end of democracy and the rule of law in Fiji. A statement from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's office said holding elections now was "the right course for Fiji and the only way forward for the people of Fiji."

United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon urged the people of Fiji to remain calm. The UN also called for respect for human rights, the rule of law and the judicial process.

No disruption to law and order - Bainimarama

In a televised address on Thursday night, Commodore Bainimarama said Fiji had no government following the ruling. He has resigned as interim prime minister.

He said the country had to wait for President Iloilo to decide on his next course of action.

Commodore Bainimarama said as commander of the military he would ensure there would be no disruption to law and order as a result of the ruling.

"I also want to caution any person who is thinking of interrupting the peace and good governance of our Fiji, that no such behaviour will be tolerated, " he said.

Court of Appeal decision

The Court of Appeal's judgement invalidated the president's move in 2007 to appoint the interim regime after it had seized power.

It said that under the 1997 constitution, the president lacked the reserve powers which were invoked to legitimise the coup.

The judgement recommended that the president can restore democracy by appointing a distinguished Fijian as interim prime minister to take the country back to national elections.

The court ruled against an argument that Mr Qarase could be reinstated, as it had been too long since he was removed.

The interim government said it would appeal against the ruling. Its lawyers had sought a stay of proceedings, but this failed.