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Regime Continues To Hold Office; Slams Punja

Issue No: 577 13 March 2001

The Qarase regime has continued to hold office despite the Fiji Court of Appeal declaring it illegal.

Last week a statement from the regime stated that the Acting President had asked the regime to continue to hold office. The President's Office has not confirmed this, but the Great Council of Chiefs, which appoints the President, did not invite Laisenia Qarase to its meeting as the Prime Minister.

The Chiefs meet today to appoint a substantive President. In its last meeting, the Chiefs had appointed Ratu Josefa Iloilo as an "Interim President". The Court declared that Ratu Josefa is only an Acting President from 15 December 2000. Under law, this acting position lapses on 15 March.

Meanwhile, the regime's Commerce as well as Public Enterprise ministers have lashed out at a company owned by business tycoon Hari Punja for pressurising the state into giving it licenses.

Today's Fiji Times quotes Punja as saying: "The talks for off-loading the cargo seem to be going around in circles and we cannot to anything but pay up". Punja's company, Flour Mills of Fiji Ltd, imported 2,400 tonnes of rice from Australia without an import license. Regime's Commerce Minister Tomasi Vuetilovoni reportedly informed the Public Enterprise Minister Hector Hatch that this was the second time the company was trying to "get away with this type of tactics". Hatch is reported to have said that he was following procedures and that no rice could be landed without the licence.

Hari Punja is a leading businessman in Fiji of ethnic Indian origin. Punja has been close to most governments in power. His overtures towards the People's Coalition Government were not as successful. The People's Coalition Government had introduced policies which were transparent and were creating an even playing field in the country. This irritated Punja who took all opportunities to condemn the government.

END 13 March 2001

Commonwealth wants 1997 Constitution
Issue No: 575 13 March 2001

The Commonwealth of Nations has stated that it wants the nation to find its solution within the provisions of the 1997 Constitution.

This is the message brought to Fiji by the Commonwealth Secretary General's Special Envoy to Fiji, Justice Pius Langa. Justice Lange arrived in the country for the third time last week.

Justice Langa has warned Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs that that the country faces dreadful repercussions if it doesn't follow the court of appeal ruling. The Chiefs meet today to consider a report from the Acting President on the ways forward for Fiji. The Chiefs have also been advised by some ethnic Fijian lawyers who say that the Chiefs should reject the court decision and allow an unelected regime to continue with discriminatory policies.

According to reports, Justice Langa, says he's worried that the chiefs may be considering rejecting the court of appeal's finding. But he says that it's crucial that bodies such as the Great Council of Chiefs look beyond their own interests and focus on the interests of Fiji. In a media statement yesterday, he stated that the only way forward following the Court of Appeal ruling, is to follow the 1997 Constitution.

"To do otherwise", he stated, "would be to seriously undermine the rule of law and it would constitute an extremely negative precedent for the future of constitutional democracy in the country. It is unthinkable, for instance, that the president could knowingly sanction unconstitutional behaviour. The repercussions would be too serious, too traumatic, both inside Fiji and internationally."

He further stated:

"Stability would be threatened and an opportunity to begin the process of fostering a constitutional ethic within the country will have been lost. Instead the constitution would evermore be seen as a document, capable of being disregarded with impunity."

"Looking at the very next step to be taken, it seems to me that the Great Council of Chiefs needs to unambiguously advise the President to exercise only those options that are consistent with the 1997constitution."

Well, I would hope that the debate will shift from options that are not constitutional and in that regard it would be quite proper for the president, for instance, to seek legal advice with regards to only those options which are constitutional, which are legal. Those which are outside the constitution should simply be scrapped.

In an ABC radio interview with reporter Sean Dorney who asked Justice Langa about a fresh election, he stated: "The options which the president must follow I leave to him, for the president to look at and that's why I've put to him that if he so wishes, he could put together a task team of legal people who would advise and demarcate what is constitutional and what is not constitutional."

"I'm not here in the capacity of legal adviser and I would not want to put myself in that invidious position. It would be invidious for me to do that. But the principled selection of what is constitutional is the sort of commitment that I'm looking for."

The Council of Chiefs reconvenes today.

END 13 March 2001

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