From Café Pacific 1990 archives: The abduction and torture of a scientist by soldiers has exposed a sinister side to the current ruling regime in Fiji. David Robie writes for The Dominion.
By David Robie in The Dominion
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Dr Anirudh Singh plays down his role in Fiji as civil rights activist. Recalling the events of the past two months that led to his abduction and torture, the Indo-Fijian academic seems remarkably surprised at the international publicity he has unleashed.
He is anxious to put things in perspective. “Ask me who am I? What am I? Nobody has asked me these things.
“I’m really a scientist. I wasn’t so interested in politics before this happened.”
It troubles him. Besides the brutal physical attack on him by soldiers, the scars left from the torture and the smear attempts by the “regime’s propagandists”, Dr Singh wants to put the record straight.
He isn’t from Britain, as some newspapers have said. He proudly says he is a Fijian citizen, now a University of the South Pacific lecturer; he was in Britain for just three years completing his doctorate in physics.
And he would like to return to Leicester University to complete his research into the atomic structure of solids using a new technology which involves the use of a particle accelerator.
But Dr Singh, due in Auckland to address a public meeting tonight [18 December 1990] about his ordeal and other human rights abuses in in Fiji, must wait until at least after January when he and six colleagues face charges of sedition and unlawful assembly.
Defence lawyers believe “political interference” is involved in the case and have filed an application for a High Court trial. A hearing will be on January 23 .
Dr Singh’s lawyer Miles Johnson, a former Fiji Law Society president and an outspoken critic of the new constitution, regards the case as a test of the legality of the interim government.
“We are putting the case fairly and squarely that an accused cannot be guilty of sedition if the government itself is not legitimate,” he said. The military-backed government was installed after two coups in 1987.
Three journalists also face charges on January 30 of “maliciously fabricating” a report about further protests against the constitution. Their newspaper, the Fiji Daily Post, reported a plan by University of the South Pacific-based protest groups to burn further copies of the constitution.
This is believed to be the first time any prosecutions have been brought under the vaguely worded Section 15(a) of Fiji’s Public Order Act 1976 which declares: “Any person who . . . fabricates or knowingly spreads abroad or publishes, whether by writing or by word of mouth, or otherwise, any false news or false report tending to create or foster public alarm, public anxiety or disaffection, or to result in the detriment of the public . . . shall be guilty of an offence.”
The three Post journalists — publisher Taniela Bolea, chief subeditor Robert Wendt and reporter Subash Verma — face a maximum penalty of one year in jail or a fine of F$1000 if found guilty.
News media sources in Suva say the arrests could be part of a campaign by the interim government to close down the indigenous Fijian-owned newspaper because its outspokenness has become an “irritant” to the regime.
‘Prisoners of conscience’
A report to the human rights group Amnesty International has warned that the accused activists and journalists would be considered “prisoners of conscience” if found guilty and jailed.
“We are certainly keen to protect human rights on our doorstep,” Amnesty’s New Zealand executive director, Colin Chiles, said. Amnesty considers the so-called “Constitution 10” have been charged over the nonviolent exercise of their constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
Interviewed by phone in Canberra, Dr Singh said he had no regrets about the symbolic burning of the new republican Fiji constitution at a protest rally during the Hindu festival of Diwali on October 13.
“It won’t even burn,” one of the about 100 protesters shouted at the time amid cries of “Azadi” (freedom). The burning incident sparked of the kidnapping.
“It was a spontaneous event, but we’re not apologising for it,” Dr Singh said. “We have a right to freely express our views against the racial discrimination of the constitution.”
The adductors drove Dr Singh to the Colo-I-Suva rainforest area on the outskirts of the capital Suva where they held him for 11 hours. He alleged that he was tortured by three of the soldiers while being interrogated about his political activities.
According to an Amnesty International report, Dr Singh said his captors covered his head with a hood, looped a rope around his neck which they tied to his feet, and bound both of his hands and feet.
Burned with cigarettes
Then the kidnappers beat him on his face, chest and arms. Later, when the hood had been removed from his head, Dr Singh’s hair was roughly cut and some of it was burned with lighted cigarettes.
While his hands were still bound, his captors held them against the base of a tree and beat them repeatedly with a steel pipe as they questioned him about the identities and addresses of other protesters.
Finally freed at 8pm, Dr Singh staggered to safety. He was taken to Suva’s Colonial War Memorial Hospital where he was treated for broken bones in his hands and multiple wounds and bruises on other parts of his body.
Dr Singh has also received further treatment in Australia and is still unable to make a fist with his hands.
Amnesty twice wrote to the interim Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, on October 24 and 29 expressing concern about the kidnapping and torture of Dr Singh. However, the regime replied there was “no evidence to suggest the involvement of police or military personnel”.
With his second response, on October 30, the regime confirmed that a police investigation had been launched immediately after the abduction. But it made no mention of the arrest of five soldiers — a captain and four corporals — on the same day.
The soldiers, including Captain Sotia Ponijiase, who had reportedly received Special Air Service training in Britain and New Zealand, pleaded guilty to abduction and grievious bodily harm charges. On November 22 they were given one year suspended jail sentences and fined $170 each.
Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit accused
Adi Kuini Bavadra, leader of the Fiji Labour Party-led Coalition, accused the Fiji military’s Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit with having organised the abduction.
Condemning the abduction and the torture, the Daily Post also protested over the arrest of its journalists involved in the affair.
The newspaper said the arrests seriously challenged the freedom of the press. “The worrying thought that emerges here is if the police action is the possible start of suppression of this freedom . . . While the Post men were in custody, the real culprits (burners of the constitution and Dr Singh’s bashers) were still at large.
“Someone appears to be barking up the wrong tree.”
Dr Singh is under no illusions. He believes he was driven to take part in the constitution protest because freedom of speech is stifled under the regime and the news media operates under conditions of strict self-censorship.
“The Daily Post has been the bravest of the media and the consequences are upon it now,” he said. “We have been totally frustrated by our lack of freedom of expression.”
‘Behave or else’
Since the constitution burning and the abduction, the regime has clamped down even harder.
“After I was tortured, the military visited the newspaper offices and seized pictures that showed me with my injuries. The staff were told in effect to behave or else.”
Dr Singh condemns the atmosphere of racial hatred and animosity encouraged by the regime. He says he now feels like a marked man for daring to speak out.
“The worst thing about it is that things have got so worked up that I might be attacked in the street by ordinary people who recognise my picture in the paper.”
This article was first published by New Zealand’s The Dominion, 18 December 1990. An expanded account of human rights violations in post-coup Fiji was published in David Robie’s 2014 book Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face: Media, Mayhem and Hum Rights in the Pacific (Little Island Press). In 1991, Dr Anirudh Singh wrote a book about his ordeal called Silent Warriors. He sued the five soldiers who abducted him and the Fiji Attorney-General and after a 13-year delay, on 1 November 2006, the High Court of Fiji ruled in his favour.