“ALL IS not well in terms of rule of law issues, in terms of free speech” in Fiji, a prominent lawyer has revealed.
In an exclusive interview with Lawyers Weekly, Graham Leung, former president of the Fiji Law Society, has come forward about being forced to stay silent, and the fate of other lawyers who have been sent to military camps where they have been abused and intimidated.
Leung, who is also the vice-president of Law Asia, a law association for Asia and the Pacific, was prevented from leaving Fiji to travel to New Zealand last week for a work function as a direct result of the December coup in which the military overthrew the elected government.
“Repressive conduct and behaviour by certain elements of the military” has resulted in a number of human rights violations, said Leung.
“Many of those who have openly expressed dissent and opposition to the December coup have been … subjected to all manner and forms of indignities at the military barracks. Many of these people were placed on a travel ban.”
Leung was unaware that he was on this list, which Law Asia estimates includes about 5,000 names, until he attempted to fly to New Zealand last week.
“A month ago I had ventured to Singapore and was allowed to leave the country, but I was hoping to visit New Zealand … and I made, in an abundance of caution, a call to the immigration office only to be told I was on this watch list and I couldn’t leave the country.
“I have no idea how my name got there. I wasn’t advised or given any prior notice of this. I certainly wasn’t accorded due process and I wasn’t aware of any court order. But I very quickly reported the violation of my constitutional right to free movement to the Human Rights Commission and they said they would look into it,” Leung said.
While Leung has been prevented from travelling outside Fiji, another prominent Fiji lawyer, Richard Naidu, was taken to the military barracks several weeks ago.
“If hearsay is to be believed, a number of people [say they] had toads given to them, and were verbally abused, etc — [that is] toads, like a frog, to intimidate them. It has been a lot better in the past week and two weeks, but certainly in the month after the takeover there were a high number of instances of this description.
“People who have been openly expressing dissent to the military regime have been dealt with in this fashion. So obviously all is not well in terms of rule of law issues, in terms of free speech,” said Leung.
As Lawyers Weekly went to press this week, the interim regime announced it would lift travel bans on individuals who have made public political statements against the coup.
According to reports in The Fiji Times on Friday, Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua Party (SDL) national director Peceli Kinivuwai said this was an encouraging sign. “This is great news and of course I am relieved,” Kinivuwai said.
The Fiji Law Society said it was also delighted with the announcement that the travel bans would be lifted. Society president Devanesh Sharma said the ban was a concern to them, the newspaper reported.
Leung is the managing partner of a small law firm in Suva, the Fijian capital. He was president of the Law Society for two years, until his term ended in September last year. Prior to that he was on the Law Society Council for three years. For the past two years Leung was chairman of the electoral commission in Fiji, from which he resigned three weeks ago. “Under the Constitution of Fiji the electoral commission is responsible for conducting the general elections,” he said.
A staunch supporter of the rule of law and democracy, Leung has approached Law Asia about his inability to leave the country. The organisation responded by writing him a letter, which he forwarded to the Fiji Human Rights Commission.
Law Asia secretary general, Janet Neville, said: “It’s clear that there are things going on that are breaching quite a few people’s rights. Law Asia tried to take quite a practical view to this, in that we understand that the issues in Fiji are very intricate and those from outside don’t necessarily know the right way to go.”
The priority for Law Asia is supporting the rule of law and the rights of people whose freedom has been compromised. It is now trying to mount a small observer mission to Fiji that will speak to the key players there, including the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General, with whom it claims to have a good relationship.
“We would be guided in all of this by how the Fiji Law Society wants to deal with it. We’d also look at speaking with the acting Chief Justice and the Chief Justice and other members of the judiciary who would be willing to share their views with us.”
The aim of the mission, however, would be to“listen and learn rather than lay down the law about anything”, said Neville. “We understand very well that interference from outside is not necessarily the right way forward.”
According to Leung, whatever the justification is for many “apparently respectable and intelligent people, [who] are on the record as having supported the illegal takeover … there can be no justification whatsoever for the overthrow of an elected government”.
“There have been all kinds of views expressed, one being that the ousted Government was corrupt and not properly elected,” he said.
But Leung argues that there are constitutional mechanisms for addressing these issues within the framework of the Fijian Constitution. “If you think an electoral result is invalid or irregularly obtained, you can institute a challenge, a court challenge of the 71 seats that were declared. In the last general elections in Fiji, only two electoral petitions were filed. One was thrown out on a technicality and another was eventually withdrawn after the coup. For all intents and purposes, those results should have been respected, but obviously the military rulers thought otherwise. So now we are in this state of huge confusion,” he said.
While he is unwilling to speak to the press in Fiji, Leung was happy to speak to Australian media about his situation. He was eager to express his frustration about the forced compromise to the rule of law and democracy.
“Recent events in Fiji since 5 December last year indicate there has been a fundamental assault not just on the constitution but the rule of law and democracy. These are worrying developments in a country that has experienced now its third coup and one attempted coup in 2000 which failed,” he said.
“When you have a coup, it is an extra constitutional usurpation of legal authority and it strikes at the very heart of democracy and at the rule of law. Of course, no sensible or right thinking person, least of all a lawyer, would countenance an illegal usurpation of constitutional authority by anyone.”