16 May 2011

Fiji police search for military officer's helpers

10:07 pm on 16 May 2011

Police in Fiji are searching for those who helped a senior military commander facing sedition charges escape to Tonga.

Lieutenant Colonel Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara, a former commander of the 3rd infantry regiment, was picked up by a Tongan navy ship in Fiji waters last week.

Police in Suva will not say whether they have any idea who helped Ratu Tevita, but interim Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama has described the assistance as fundamental disloyalty to Fiji.

A warrant was issued by the Suva Magistrate Court on Monday morning for Ratu Tevita, who breached his bail conditions after being charged over a week ago with uttering seditious comments.

Public prosecutors can now start extradition proceedings.

On Sunday Ratu Tevita issued a message from Tonga, saying those in power in Fiji have been corrupted and the military government has not followed through with the original plan to run the country for a short time before returning to barracks.

However, he maintains he did not flee Fiji, telling Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme on Monday he was at sea fishing when he ran into difficulties and the Tongan vessel rescued him.

Radio New Zealand International's reporter in Fiji says none of Ratu Tevita's comments are being reported in Fiji as newsrooms are still overseen by censors. The reporter spoke to rural people on Monday, most of whom were unaware of the developments.

Tonga 'will not interfere'

Colonel Bainimarama has called the action of Tonga's navy a breach of Fiji's sovereignty.

In a statement, Tonga's Prime Minister Lord Tui'vakano says his country has no interest in interfering in Fiji's domestic affairs.

The statement says there is a process to be followed with extradition orders and no obstacle will be placed before representatives of the Fiji government in court, nor will the accused be denied counsel or the right to reply.

It points out that the Tongan legal system is not subject to political influence by either the king or cabinet ministers and judges are not encouraged to make decisions based on political beliefs.

The statement ends by saying that it is an offensive breach of protocol to infer for political gain that the king's offer of hospitality to Ratu Tevita equates to an offer of immunity.