Australia welcomes end to martial law in Fiji
MICHAEL FIELD AND ADAM GARTRELL
The Australian government has welcomed Fiji's decision to lift its draconian emergency laws but says the military regime must do a lot more to restore democracy.
Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has used a televised New Year message to announce that his interim government's Public Emergency Regulations will be lifted on January 7.
Commodore Bainimarama said lifting the laws introduced in April 2009 would open the way for national consultations on a new constitution, likely to begin next month.
The Australian government's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, says the move is a definite step in the right direction.
''The Public Emergency Regulations have been an oppressive part of the interim regime in Fiji and we've been calling for their removal really since they were instituted,'' Marles told AAP on Monday.
But Marles said Commodore Bainimarama - who seized power in a 2006 coup - still had a lot of work to do.
''There is a long way to go in restoring democracy to Fiji. We are keen to see how these developments play out,'' he said.
Marles pointed out that Fiji's media and essential services decrees - which impose strict limits on press and union freedom - remain in place.
Marles said it also remained to be seen whether Commodore Bainimarama would deliver on his pledge to hold elections in 2014.
Australia's Rudd and Gillard Labor governments have maintained a tough line and sanctions against the Fijian regime, despite calls from some commentators for a softer approach.
''As to the effect of our diplomacy, we'll leave that to others to judge,'' Marles said.
''(But) I think it's been important that the international community has maintained a firm stance in relation to Fiji.
''I think it's particularly important that the Pacific region has maintained its firm stance in relation to Fiji.''
Marles called on the regime to ensure the constitutional consultations include voices from across the political spectrum.
When martial law was imposed over two years ago, Fiji's Court of Appeal ruled that dictator Bainimarama's coup was illegal.
Bainimarama's announcement came as the military seized businesswoman and former MP Dr Mere Samisoni on Friday and, according to her family, plans to prosecute her for plotting to overthrow the regime.
Martial law, introduced in April 2009, banned any public meetings and imposed tight censorship on all media. It gave the military and police power to detain people for days without charge, and in some cases to take people to the military barracks near Suva where physical and mental abuses are claimed.
Bainimarama claimed that the existing voting system was racially based, with indigenous Fijians having greater voting power than the ethnic Indians who make up around 35 per cent of the 900,000 people.
He said Fiji had been mismanaged and hindered by greed and selfishness.
"You and I must not allow a few to dictate the destiny of our country for their own selfish needs," he said.
He warned features of a new constitution will be non-negotiable.
"The constitution must establish a government that is founded on an electoral system that guarantees equal suffrage – a truly democratic system based on the principle of one person, one vote, one value.
"We will not have a system that will classify Fijians based on ethnicity...."
Consultation would begin next month: "To facilitate this consultation process, the Public Emergency Regulations will cease from 7 January 2012."
The British-based family of Dr Samisoni fear the 74-year-old grandmother of 11 would be one of the last to be prosecuted under martial law.
Dr Samisoni, who founded the popular 30-store Hot Bread Kitchen chain before turning to politics where she won the Lami Open ward for the party of prime minister Laisenia Qarase, has been held in Suva's infamous Central Police Station over the long New Year's weekend.
Daughter Vanessa Charters, speaking on the family's behalf, said they had been told that Dr Samisoni had allegedly made a confession.
"At this moment in time we aren't sure what this alleged confession relates to but we do know for a fact, we have had it independently verified, that mum's lawyer was not present at the time of this so-called confession," she said.
Under Fiji's martial law, people are not allowed to gather without authorisation and all media faces tough censorship.
But it has been revealed that in the Namosi highlands, west of Suva, villagers have protested against a planned gold and copper mine operated by Australia's Newcrest Mining.
The protest on December 14 was not reported at all in Fiji, but witnesses say the people of Namosi "staged a quiet protest against the proposed mining project on their land...
"(The) women and children sat outside holding banners calling for their land to be left alone. Witnesses say some women were crying as they sat outside."
So far the regime has not responded to requests for comment on Samisoni, or the mining protest.
Meanwhile, the Fiji Government's website - www.fiji.gov.fj - published Bainimarama's statement last night, but since then has apparently been hacked into and cannot now be reached.
- Stuff with AAP