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Judiciary embroiled in Fiji turmoil

Fiji's military leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has ordered the Australia and New Zealand High Commissioners out of the country.

user iconThe New Lawyer 04 November 2009 The Bar
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FIJI'S military leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has ordered the Australia and New Zealand High Commissioners in Suva out of the country. 

He made the announcement today, saying it was a result of the impact of the Australian and New Zealand governments' positions on Fiji.


On Monday, Fiji's newly-installed Chief Justice, Anthony Gates, accused Australia and New Zealand of interfering with the operations of the Fiji judiciary. 

The Commodore said he ordered the expulsions because the two countries had interfered, as well, with the travel of new judges from Sri Lanka, who were being brought into the country after the standing judiciary were sacked. 

He claims a scratchy recording proves Australia is meddling in Fiji's affairs. 

"Individuals appointed to the Fiji judiciary, regardless of citizenship, became subject to these travel sanctions and so that will obviously include yourself," a voice on the recording said. 

Commodore Bainimarama said the voice belongs to an Australian diplomat, who also warns that a Sri Lankan judge will be banned from entering Australia is she accepts a job with the Fijian Judiciary.

In April this year, the president of the Fiji Law Society, Dorsami Naidu, was detained for 24 hours in custody, where he said he was threatened with charges of sedition. At the time, Commodore Bainimarama denied publicly that anyone had been detained. 

Naidu said in April that the situation in Fiji was heading downhill. "We don't have a judiciary at the moment and politically I don't know where we're going."

On 22 May, the Fiji regime removed key regulatory powers from the Fiji Law Society, transferring responsibility for issuing practising certificates to a government employee, the Chief Registrar of the Court. A decree said that all existing certificates would expire by the end of June, and that lawyers would have to seek renewal from the Registrar before then. 

The same decree also removed responsibility for handling complaints about lawyers from the society to the Registrar. In the week after the Decree was issued, government officials demanded entry to the Fiji Law Society offices and removed confidential files. 

New Zealand and Australian lawyers have become deliberately embroiled in the events in Fiji, with member bodies for the profession publicly commenting on various events. 

NZLS President John Marshall QC described the moves as very disturbing and said they represented a very serious attack on the independence of the legal profession in Fiji that was of considerable concern.

“An independent legal profession is a vital element of the rule of law. The legal profession represents individuals in claims against the State and defends them in criminal cases brought by the State. Lawyers must be independent of State interference to be able to represent clients freely and fearlessly.

“We are very concerned to learn that the Fiji Government, through the Chief Registrar, will now decide who should hold a practising certificate,” he said.

Marshall’s Australian counterpart, Law Council of Australia president John Corcoran, also spoke out strongly, expressing the Law Council’s concern about the future independence of the legal profession in Fiji.

Corcoran said: “I am concerned that this could be the first step in the Fiji Government’s attempts to control the country’s legal profession by not allowing lawyers who oppose the regime to practise law.

“Without an independent legal profession, a vital ingredient in upholding the rule of law in Fiji would be missing,” Corcoran said.

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