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John Roughan: Recent Prison Disturbance!

Recent Prison Disturbance!

By John Roughan
15 August 2004

Solomons' recent prison disturbance was much more than a demand for more food, better living conditions or other material demands to make prison life easier. Prisoners locked up for 20 hours each day and facing a dismal future, such issues are secondary. Rove's prisoners are frustrated, angry and carry around some deep misunderstandings. It's worthwhile for prison authorities to focus attention on these, the more fundamental whys of the disturbance.

Close to the heart of why some prisoners are frustrated is the length of time they have been held in remand. Some have been in that state for months waiting their case to be heard.. They have yet to face a court to find out if they are indeed guilty of the crimes charged with. The court system, currently seriously over stretched, is replying by appointing more judges, building more court venues and increasing court case hearings.. All of this takes time! For someone inside a cell for months on end, however, it's all taking too long.

Another group of prisoners, however, suffer another kind of pain. As they told me, yes, they justly are in prison for wrongs they did and yes they are paying for their mistakes. But what eats at them is the fact that others, who have done much worse than themselves, have yet to face the courts and have yet to be sentenced to prison for their crimes. In prisoners' minds, this is unfair. RAMSI has been here for 13 months now and not one 'Big Fish', as they call them, has had to face up to their crimes.

But at the heart of prisoner unrest, however, lies the recent history of how our political leadership abused the sacred character of amnesty. The Townsville Peace Agreement incorporated it at the heart of the document awarding amnesty to both sides of the conflict. But TPA also demanded that guns and all stolen property be returned as well. Yet, only amnesty ever stuck in militants' minds. In 2001 and 2002, the government extended amnesty three different times. It hoped that by repeating the promise of amnesty guns would flood back into its hands. Of course this never happened. Only when RAMSI troopers went around and forced the issue were the guns returned. However, the damage to the sacredness of amnesty was already deep.

Fiji people are currently debating the amnesty issue again in the light of the recent treason trial convictions of four senior leaders. No sooner had the courts convicted four Ratus of treason then there were calls for pardon. In the minds of some, it was not fitting that such prominent men should be humiliated by serving jail time for their crimes. However, the severity of the recent coup reflects a bitter lesson Fiji learned from its initial coup in the late 1980s.

In 1987, immediately after the first set of coups, its ring leaders, e.g. Setevini Rambuka and others, were granted amnesty for their attack on the state. Many Fijians, however, felt at the time that there was a too quick use of amnesty. It was felt the use of amnesty before the courts had reviewed the coup and the actions of its leaders, cheapened such a sacred gift.

The four leaders who have recently been convicted for treason have been given rather light sentences of 3 to 6 years. In the first coup, however, no one was killed, no hostage taken and the nation suffered but little. In the more recent coup, 2001, soldiers and others were murdered, dozens taken hostage for weeks on end and Fiji is only now slowly emerging from its wounds. The Coup leader, George Speight, initially sentenced to death, has had his sentence lightened to life in prison.

Fijians faced a painful lesson but that they did. Amnesty handed out hastily loses its special value. It is too precious a gift to be lightly and easily used. Have the Solomons learnt the painful lessons from our own Coup and its aftermath? It seems not!

The idea of granting amnesty especially to certain classes of people, our Big Men, for instance, is still alive and well in the minds of many of Rove's inmates and their cronies. To make matters worse, there is more than a few hints that amnesty should be kicking in and soon for many of those who have been convicted of serious crimes of murder, arson, rape, abduction, etc. Many criminals who have faced the courts and have been declared guilty are counting upon government leaders to speedily come to their help and play the amnesty card.

Yet, those in prison remain our brothers! Simply approving a government sponsored amnesty without the total backing of the people, groups and communities whose lives were ruined by criminal acts sows the seeds of future serious discord. However, doesn't it make sense for those who have lost most to reach down to the bottom of their hearts to forgive, show forgiveness and present an offender a Certificate of Forgiveness as a first step in granting amnesty!

In other words, a worthwhile amnesty declaration must first come from the people who's lives were ruined, destroyed, not simply from some government functionary who plans to reduce amnesty to a juridical or legal process!

Amnesty must always be available but in its use, sacredness and specialness upheld. Our Constitution entrusts this noble act to no public servant, not even to the Prime Minister but to the Governor General alone and to Parliament sitting in session. The act of granting amnesty must be exercised in such a fashion that it protects its sacredness. When used properly the nation's whole life is enhanced, strengthened and sustained. Wholesale use of this prerogative without proper care but cheapens it and leads to greater difficulties in the future.


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