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Global concerns over Fiji human rights abuses fuelled by new Amnesty report

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By Kara Segedin

Global concerns over human rights abuses in Fiji are mounting following a damning new report by Amnesty International’s Pacific research team.

In the report released early today, Amnesty documents a litany of human rights violations in the Pacific nation since the abrogation of the Constitution on April 10.

It calls for stronger international action – including from China – now one of Fiji’s largest supporting donors.

The report, titled Fiji: Paradise Lost –  A Tale of Ongoing Human Rights Violations, covers the period April-July 2009.

It identifies sweeping infringements on the “rights to freedom of assembly, opinion, expression and movement, the right to a fair trial, and freedom from arbitrary detention”.

The 48-page document contains background information, highlights human rights and media freedom abuses and makes a series of recommendations to the Fijian government and the international community.

Amnesty is calling on the Fiji government to stop all human rights violations, including “the arbitrary arrests; intimidation and threats; and assaults and detention of journalists, government critics and others”.

It also wants the Public Emergency Regulations (PER) enacted on April 10 to be repealed immediately.

In an address to Amnesty International Auckland last week, Pacific researcher Apolosi Bose, who is himself from Fiji, called on countries like New Zealand to put pressure on Fiji’s military government to remove the public emergency regulations allowing the intimidation of its people.

Bose was in Auckand to talk about the Amnesty’s new direction in the Pacific and to preview the release of the Fiji report.

Originally from Fiji, Bose spent eight years working on Pacific human rights project based there.

In April, he was conducting research on slums in Fijiat the time the constitution was abrogated by since retired President Ratu Josefa Iloilo.

“I was told to put the slums aside and do so research on the political and human rights situation,” he said.

The data in the report is based his visit to Fiji from April 4-18.  Amnesty spoke with about 80 people from across the community.

Free expression violations
Amnesty says: “Media censorship began immediately after the abrogation of the Constitution as police and government officials entered newsrooms in media outlets to begin scrutinising and censoring the press”.

The report says government officers and plain clothed police have been placed in all the country’s newsroom and that at least 20 journalists have been arrested following the introduction of PER (see media harassment story).

It also documents attacks, threats and intimidation towards those in the media and the detention of non-Fijian journalists.

Harassment of critics
Amnesty says from April 10 until May 20, the police, military and other government officials arrested about 40 people under the PER’s broad powers of detention on suspicion of threatening peace and stability in the country.

“The vast majority of those arrested and detained were questioned without being given the right to see a lawyer, before and during questioning by the police.  Although all of them have been released, these short term arrests and surveillance of activists have contributed to the climate of fear in Fiji.”

The report goes on to identify a number of case studies from people caught up in the arrests.

Bose has been monitoring the situation, talking with people in Fiji, writing reports and speaking with the human rights council in Geneva.

He interviewed the judges and magistrates who where sacked and activists whom he had worked with in the past.

“Some of my former colleagues were taken up to the camp, especially the women, and they were physically abused,”  he said.

“Some youth activists were sexually violated by senior members of the military with threats that ‘this is just the preview of what will happen to you when you try to open your mouth again and say anything bad about the military’.”

Bose said female activists were not only receiving threats against themselves, but to their daughters and female relatives

“They say if you continue to say anything else, we will come to your daughter and we’ll rape her.  It’s a very difficult environment.”

Judicial interference
The next section documents the increased interference with the judiciary.  Amnesty says this has been a gradual progression from the initial military takeover in December 2006.

It began with the suspension of the former Chief Justice Daniel Fatiaki in January 2007 until the entire judiciary was sacked in April 2009.

Bose spoke of specific cases where three people died after being beaten by the military.  These incidents are detailed in the report.

“Because of the judiciary was still in place they were able to lay charges against those responsible.”

In March this year, after long delays, the soldiers were convicted and sentenced to three to four years in prison.

But once the constitution was abrogated, the soldiers were released.

Interviewing people closely involved, Bose says while in prison the soldiers would wake up, have breakfast, then go home to their families and come back at 4pm for dinner.

Once free they were reinstated to their jobs.  They continued to receive their salaries from the military, but the time spent in prison was cut from annual leave.

Maire Leadbeater, spokesperson for the Auckland-based Indonesia Human Rights Committee, was at Wednesday’s Amnesty meeting.

A long standing member of the Coalition for Democracy in Fiji, Leadbeater said she was very saddened by what she heard.

“But I think it’s information we should all know,” she said.

“I don’t think people have realised just how much there is no accountability.  The fact there’s this state of emergency and all control in the hands of the military, that’s not widely realised.”

Kara Segedin is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at AUT University and reporting for AUT’s Pacific Media Centre.

Full AI report on Fiji at Pacific Media Watch
At Amnesty International