Report – By Graham Davis
The most high profile legal case in Fiji since that of 2000 attempted coup leader George Speight is underway in the High Court in Suva – the long awaited corruption trial of deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.
Right up until the last minute, Qarase’s lawyers had been trying to get the proceedings deferred on the grounds that he wasn’t able to find an affordable senior counsel from overseas to represent him.
But Sri Lankan born judge, Justice Priyantha Fernando, ruled Qarase had had ample time to get proper representation and ordered that the trial proceed as scheduled. It’s been set down for four weeks.
The charges relate to Fijian Holdings Ltd – a major corporate player in the country that is owned by several layers of the i’taukei establishment and was originally set up to bolster the economic prospects of indigenous people.
It involves allegations over share dealings when Qarase was a director of Fijian Holdings. He denies six counts of abuse of office and three counts of discharge of duty with respect to a property in which he has a private interest.
The case has been brought by the Fiji Independent Commission against Corruption (FICAC), which engaged two prosecuting barristers from Hong Kong – senior counsel Michael Blanchflower and assistant Elizabeth Yang. Blanchflower is a heavy hitter at the Hong Kong bar, a former Assistant Solicitor General, Justice Department lawyer and a specialist in money laundering who drafted HK’s anti-money laundering laws.
When he arrived in the country last week, Blanchflower reduced the number of witnesses for the prosecution from 14 to 10 and the number of documents from more than 100 to around 68. He said it would make the case “leaner” and better focused on the main issues.
Up against them is Suva barrister Tupou Draunidalo, who was drafted in at the eleventh hour after Qarase said he was unable to find an affordable senior counsel in Australia or New Zealand willing to represent him. His lawyers unsuccessfully argued that they needed more time to get across the detail of the case and would have been furiously burning the midnight oil trying to get up to speed.
A senior figure in legal circles, Drainidalo is a forthright human rights advocate and political activist who strongly condemned Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama’s 2006 coup. She was arrested and interrogated by the military for allegedly inciting the public to oppose the government but was never charged.
Drainidalo is also celebrated for being the daughter of the late chief and deputy prime mininster, Adi Kuini Speed, and step-daughter of Timoci Bavadra, the Labour prime minister deposed by Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987.
Her father, the late Savenaca Draunidalo, served as one of Laisenia Qarase’s cabinet ministers until he too was deposed in the coup of 2006. A former colonel in the military, he was killed in a fishing accident the following year.
So a Sri Lankan judge, a Hong Kong senior counsel for the prosecution and a respected and feisty local barrister for the defence. A compelling drama is being played out in the Suva High Court.