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Citizens' Group Condemns Move To Pardon Speight

Fiji Citizens' Group Condemns Move To Pardon Speight

SUVA (Pasifik Nius): A pro-democracy Fiji citizens group today condemned a move to pardon coup frontman George Speight after he pleaded guilty to treason in the High Court and was given a mandatory death sentence.

The Citizens' Constitutional Forum (CCF) said Speight's guilty plea at the opening of his treason trial today opened the way for him to appeal to President Ratu Josefa Iloilo to exercise the prerogative of mercy.

It said that any pardon to Speight or his 12 fellow accused would be a "blow to the rule of law" in Fiji.

But Fiji Television reported tonight that the Prerogative of Mercy Commission had recommended to the President late today that the death sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment. The President had reportedly endorsed this.

"So it is now official - George Speight will not be executed," said reporter Imraz Iqbal.

Fiji Television quoted local lawyer John Apted saying that it was possible the commission could recommend Speight's release after 12 years in jail.

Justice Michael Scott had earlier stunned the court by sentencing Speight to death by hanging as it had been widely speculated that plea bargaining meant that he and the other accused would not be harshly punished in return for guilty pleas.

However, a bill to change the mandatory death sentence to life for treason in the Penal Code had only gone to Parliament today.

Speight and his fellow accused had been detained on Nukulau prison isle near the capital of Suva for almost two years awaiting trial for violently overthrowing the Labour-led government in May 2000 and holding the ministers hostage for 56 days.

Deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry welcomed the judgment and praised Speight for pleading guilty, but said there were others behind him who had also committed treason.

"We hope the others will also be brought to justice," he said.

The CCF was critical of the moves by Attorney-General Qoriniasi Bale, who chairs the Prerogative for Mercy Commission.

"It will mean that in future any person can commit treason in the name of indigenous nationalism and expect [a] pardon or reduced sentence from the head of state," said executive director Rev Akuila Yabaki.

He said the CCF did not support the imposition of a mandatory death sentence on Speight and would support the amendment of the Penal Code so that the death sentence was changed to mandatory life imprisonment.

Yabaki said the treason charge must apply to everybody who took an oath of loyalty, or administered an oath of loyalty, to anything other than the Fiji constitution after the Chaudhry government was taken hostage on 19 May 2000.

The CCF also favours a review of the Penal Code to modernise the statute.

But it is against a plan by Bale to revive an immunity decree signed by the military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

"It is vital to the upholding of the rule of law in this country that people charged with serious crimes related to the holding hostage of the government should be tried in court and sentenced appropriately after pleading guilty or being proven guilty," Yabaki said.

"It is not fair to other criminals who committed serious crimes not related to the coup that they should languish in jail while those who committed serious crimes during year 2000 should be let off on lighter charges or granted immunity."

+++niuswire

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