Emergency in Fiji as president revokes constitution (Second Lead)

April 10th, 2009 - 5:58 pm ICT by IANS  

Wellington, April 10 (DPA) Fiji was placed under emergency rule Friday after President Ratu Josefa Iloilo revoked the constitution and sacked the Court of Appeal judges who declared the military government illegal, according to reports from the island nation’s capital Suva.
In his first decree after assuming supreme powers, the ageing and ailing Iloilo introduced public emergency regulations and moved censors into newspaper, radio and television offices charged with stopping the broadcast or publication of anything that would undermine his rule or cause “disorder”, the Fiji Times online reported.

Military strongman Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, who had ruled since seizing power in a bloodless coup in December 2006, stepped down Thursday following the Court of Appeal’s judgment that his government was unlawful.

But observers in New Zealand and Australia said Bainimarama remained in charge behind the scenes and Iloilo, who told the nation it would be five years before fresh elections are held, was acting on his behalf.

“Puppet is the word I would use,” said Brij Lal, a professor at the Australian National University, Canberra. “He is old, he is over 80, he is ineffective and ineffectual and in ill health.”

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully dubbed Iloilo’s actions “a serious step backwards” for Fiji and its 837,000 people.

“The president’s decision, no doubt prompted by the commodore, to override the constitution, sack the judges and depend upon the military to keep an unlawful regime in power will compound the already serious economic difficulties confronted by Fiji,” McCully said.

In an address to the Pacific island nation, Iloilo said he believed Bainimarama, who had ruled since seizing power in a bloodless coup in December 2006, had “performed extremely well, brought up new ideas, reforms and improved the lives of the ordinary people,” the Fijivillage website reported.

Assuming powers as head of state, Iloilo said he would appoint a new judiciary and a new interim government, which would need five years to implement reforms required before “true democratic and parliamentary elections” could be held by September 2014.

Three judges of the Court of Appeal ruled Thursday that Bainimarama’s government was unlawfully appointed and said the president should appoint an independent caretaker prime minister to dissolve parliament and call a general election.

Abrogating the 1997 constitution, Iloilo said he would install a new “legal order”.

“New judicial appointments will need to be made for all judges, magistrates and other judicial officers,” he said.

Iloilo assured the country that he had the full backing of the security forces and said he had directed Bainimarama, who remains head of the military, “to take all reasonable steps” to ensure peace is maintained.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for calm in Fiji and urged “full respect for human rights, the rule of law and the judicial process”, in a statement issued by his spokeswoman.

“It will also further delay the point at which the international community can give Fiji the help that is urgently needed.”

Bainimarama, stepping down Thursday as prime minister, told the nation, “The ruling of the Court of Appeal and its refusal to grant a stay pending appeal means, in practical terms, that we effectively do not have a prime minister or any ministers of the state.

“In other words we do not have a government in place.”

Bainimarama has refused calls by New Zealand, Australia, the European Union, the US and the Pacific Islands Forum to restore democracy by holding elections this year.

The Court of Appeal ruling overturned a decision by the High Court that held that Bainimarama’s regime, which ousted the elected government headed by Laisenia Qarase, was legitimate.

Bainimarama, who accused Qarase’s government of being corrupt and biased in favour of the indigenous Fijian majority against the ethnic Indian minority, has refused to go to the polls until a new one-man, one-vote electoral system is in place.

He said the existing system was to blame for the four coups and army mutiny that have devastated Fiji’s fragile economy since 1987 and divided the South Pacific nation.

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