Weekend arrests fuel Fiji’s democracy debate

Chaudhry being released from Totogo Police Station in Suva yesterday. Image: Rama/ Fiji Times

By TJ Aumua

Democracy and freedom of speech are at the forefront of discussions concerning the arrests of five prominent Fijian politicians over the weekend.

The men were allegedly detained on Saturday for a comment made at a meeting that discussed Fiji’s 2013 Constitution; the meeting was also held without a legal permit.  They were kept in custody overnight and released on Sunday.

Among the group was former Fiji prime minister and original coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka, National Federation Party (NFP) leader Dr Biman Prasad, academic Dr Tupeni Baba, trade unionist Attar Singh, and Jone Dakuvula from the organisation Pacific Dialogue.

Another former prime minister and current Fiji Labour Party (FLP) leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, handed himself into police on Sunday and was released yesterday morning without charge.

In an interview with Radio New Zealand International, Chaudhry referred to the incident as an act of “intimidation” and said there was no democracy in Fiji.

“If we can’t hold a forum to discuss our own Constitution in a democracy … what kind of democracy is that?

“We want to live in a free society not where there are restrictions on free speech.”

Chaudhry said Fiji’s current prime minister, Voreqe Bainimarama, and the Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, were invited but didn’t attend the meeting.

The NGO Coalition for Human Rights stated police may have also searched the homes and offices of Dr Prasad, Singh, Dr Baba, Dakuvula and Rabuka.

In protest, Dr Biman Prasad and the National Federation Party boycotted yesterday’s parliament session over the continued intimidation by the Opposition and “muzzling of free expression” in Fiji.

Public order amendment
According to Fiji’s Public Order Amendment Decree a permit is required for those wanting to hold a public meeting.

The Decree gives permission to the commissioner of police or any divisional police commander to prohibit a meeting they think may undermine the public safety and good order of the country.

The Fiji Times reported a statement by Bainimarama who said he was disappointed with the international community and their questioning of Fiji’s laws without objectivity.

“The Public Order Act, among other provisions, requires any group wanting to hold a public meeting to apply for a permit from the police before the proposed event.”

Bainimarama said no application was made therefore the police were acting within their rights.

“Those who attended this gathering were lawfully detained for questioning and there have been no allegations of any of their human rights being breached while in detention,” he said.

‘Step forward’
The arrests have spurred questioning of Fiji’s democracy as its 2014 general election, in which Bainimarama was elected prime minister, was deemed as a step forward for the country after eight-years of military governance.

When he was elected in 2014, Bainimarama thanked a crowd in Suva: “I am deeply honored and humbled that the Fijian people have put their trust in me to lead them into our new and true democracy.”

In a separate RNZI interview, Dr Steven Ratuva, said after the 2014 elections there was optimism for a democratic space to be established within Fiji.

“In fact the Constitution itself talks about the rights of free expression and assembly.

“Now the Public Order Amendment Decree seems to provide a limitation to those freedoms which are being contained in the Constitution.”

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TJ Aumua is Pacific Media Watch freedom project contributing editor for the Pacific Media Centre (2016). She is a recent graduate of Auckland University of Technology with a Bachelor of Communication Studies (Honours) degree and with a BCS majoring in journalism and a minor in screen writing. TJ is also a contributor for the PMC Online and Asia Pacific Report and has been a recent summer research intern with Pacific Journalism Review.