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Fiji's deposed PM Qarase faces jail term

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 16:11 01/08/2012
Laisenia Qarase
TIM WIMBORNE/ Reuters
GUILTY: A court has found former Fiji Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase guilty of corruption.

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Fiji's last democratically elected prime minister, who will hear Friday whether he is going to jail, has been endorsed as an honest man who served his people with integrity.

Laisenia Qarase, 71, was yesterday convicted by the Fiji High Court of nine corruption related charges going back to the early 90s, before he became prime minister in 2000.

Fiji police and military were today on alert as several hundred people gathered outside the High Court to offer support.

Such large gatherings have been strictly outlawed in Fiji since military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama in 2006 overthrew Qarase's government.

Justice Priyantha Fernando, held a sentencing hearing today and said he would impose the sentence on Friday.

Qarase could face a maximum of three years imprisonment.

Former Vice President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi gave testimony in support of Qarase, saying that he was always polite, respectful and patient even if when they disagreed on some matters.

State owned Fiji Broadcasting said Madraiwiwi described Qarase as a firm believer of the rule of law, the only concern was the way military was engaged in government.

Madraiwiwi said the criminal conviction was a matter of great humiliation to Qarase.

Opposition politician Mick Beddoes told the court he never doubted Qarase's integrity.

He said Qarase was a peaceful man and Fiji needed him in the future.

A former president of the Methodist Church, Rev Josataki Koroi told the court Qarase was an honest and humble man who loves his children and grandchildren.

Qarase's conviction came just a day after Australia and New Zealand decided to ease its sanctions against the military regime.

The nine convictions against Qarase relate to a time when he was a senator and banker and a director of Fijian Holdings Ltd, a stock market traded company whose shares are limited to indigenous Fijians.

Qarase is charged with six counts of abuse of office and three counts of discharge of duty with respect to a property in which he has a private interest.

Numerous international critics including the Commonwealth and the Pacific Forum claim Fiji's country system is controlled by the military regime and has no independence.

Justice Fernando was hired from Sri Lanka to sit on the Fiji High Court after New Zealand and Australian justices boycotted serving there, citing regime control over the courts.

Qarase, a Polynesian from the remote Lau Islands, was first appointed by Bainimarama as a caretaker prime minister in the wake of the 2000 George Speight coup.

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When Qarase stayed on in office and won an election in 2001, Bainimarama took strong exception to him.

He claimed Qarase was an "ethno-nationalist" and was dividing the country. Bainimarama threatened several coups against him and finally staged it in late 2006.

- Stuff

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