Army's new powers terrify residents

23:01, May 23 2009

Fiji's military have been given permission to shoot civilians without fear of being prosecuted.

Terrified Fijians say they are too frightened to speak out after the latest political upheaval, which has seen the nation's media gagged by sweeping state censorship restrictions in a crackdown on dissenting free speech.

Armed forces chief Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama returned to power as prime minister on Saturday, a day after the president suspended the constitution and fired the judges who had declared the his previous government illegal.

President Ratu Josefa Iloilo also declared a 30-day state of emergency, limiting freedom of speech, expanding police powers and curbing media.

Reports emerged yesterday of people being detained without charge in the absence of a judiciary. Public Emergency Regulations imposed by the military regime have given military personnel permission to use arms to break up processions, meetings or assemblies. If anyone is injured or killed, the decree grants soldiers immunity from prosecution.

Yesterday's Fiji Times had blank pages after police censors forced the paper to erase international reaction to latest developments.

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Privately owned Fiji TV pulled its 6pm news bulletin yesterday, refusing to allow the military regime to censor its broadcast.

It is understood that judges sympathetic to the military regime may be reappointed today.

In a national address after his reappointment, Commodore Bainimarama told Fijians they had the opportunity to build "on a clean slate, a new beginning".

"We must all be loyal to Fiji, we must be patriotic," Commodore Bainimarama said. "The necessary regulations are in force. I'm sure we will all including the media co-operate with the relevant agencies."

Commodore Bainimarama has been in power since he overthrew the democratically elected government of Laisenia Qarase in 2006.

Attempts are being made to bring forward a meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, where Fiji's suspension from the Pacific Forum looks certain and harsher sanctions are likely to be debated.

A Fijian citizen, too afraid to be named, spoke from Suva yesterday about his fear of being arrested, beaten or killed for speaking out. "There's no constitution, there's no law. They are the law."

Many Fijians had struggled since sanctions against the regime crippled the economy, the man said. "People cannot afford to send their children to school or put food on the table. People are just struggling to find ways and means to live. You can't fight the military because they're the ones with the guns.

"Everybody's praying and hoping that things will change soon that will return the government back to democratic elections ... where people are free to speak [and] you're not always looking back and worried about what will happen to you and your family."

Mr Qarase said he had to be careful to "say nothing" but feared that crime was likely to rise as poverty worsened. "The place is calm right now. Ahead, potentially, I don't know."

Government spokesman Major Neumi Leweni said no-one had been detained and there was no shoot-to-kill policy in the new regulations.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd condemned the situation in Fiji and labelled Commodore Bainimarama's administration "virtually a military dictatorship".

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully called the reinstatement of Commodore Bainimarama "a sham". "The events that surround his appointment take his country down an even darker path."

The Foreign Affairs Ministry has been operating in Fiji for months on reduced staff after Commodore Bainimarama expelled high commissioner Caroline McDonald and refused to allow the replacement of police and defence attaches.

The ministry was advising caution for Kiwis in Fiji yesterday, saying there was "some risk" to security. "Fiji is calm but a rapid deterioration to the situation, including the potential for civil disorder and violence, cannot be ruled out."

The Dominion Post