Fiji's ex-PM jailed for a year

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 12:20 03/08/2012
Laisenia Qarase
TIM WIMBORNE/ Reuters
FORMER FIJI PM: Laisenia Qarase.

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Fiji's last democratically elected prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, 71, has been sent to prison for a year on nine charges of corruption.

The sentence knocks Qarase out of Fiji's 2014 elections.

Security was increased in Suva for the sentencing by Justice Priyantha Fernando.

The court buildings in the capital were roped off and local media report a high police presence.

Police Senior Superintendent Rusiate Tudravu said they increased security after a big turnout of people at the court on Tuesday. He said police wanted the public to refrain from unwarranted actions.

"All police units will be on alert as well," he told the Fiji Sun.

"We do not want to infringe and interfere with the independence of the judiciary as this is just a normal court proceeding."

Yesterday in Auckland, Prime Minister John Key said it was still possible for Fiji to hold democracy-restoring elections in 2014, even though one of the principle politicians was locked up in jail.

Qarase's jailing follows this week move by New Zealand and Australia to ease sanctions against the regime which overthrew Qarase in a military coup in 2006.

Key said they eased the sanctions to encourage Fiji toward elections.

"We have been trying to take some baby steps forward toward normalising the relationship on the basis that we want Fiji to have democratic elections."

He said they believed the military leadership under Voreqe Bainimarama was going to hold elections and New Zealand was keen to encourage them to hold them and restore a constitution.

He would not offer advice on whether Qarase should be locked up.

But he said it was right, "it is possible", and that Qarase would be in jail when the elections occurred.

"In the end we would like to see those elections held."

He said he would not make any comment to Suva on Qarase's fate, but "the foreign ministry might".

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.

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

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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