Graham Davis: Fiji coup culture – here we go again. More instability?


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COMMENTARY: By Graham Davis

The Fiji Times totally crossed the line today by using a convicted felon who took part in the 2000 coup to call for the release of the coup frontman George Speight.

Journalist Josefa Nata spent 23 years in prison for his part in the rebellion. He has served his time and deserves his freedom.

But he does not deserve to have the front page of Fiji’s traditional newspaper of record for any reason at all short of naming the shadowy figures behind the rebellion or throwing new light on our understanding of what took place.

Does he do so? Not a chance. The headline says: “Nata on Coup”. Yet nowhere is there any detail of what occurred 24 years ago.

So why would The Fiji Times give him the front page for his pedestrian musings on how his “time in jail has helped him to realise his wrongdoings”? The answer is revealed on page 2 – Joe Nata’s call for his fellow conspirator, George Speight, to be released from prison.

He reveals that he has already had discussions with the ousted attorney-general, Siromi Turaga, and the Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, to press Speight’s case. And now he wants to meet the Commander of the RFMF, Major General Ro Jone Kalouniwai, to try to persuade him that the 2000 coup leader has done his time.

Until now, General Kalouniwai has insisted that Speight cannot be released without it being a threat to national security. The RFMF Commander has given undertakings to his fellow officers that he will not countenance Speight being set free.

And Grubsheet understands that he has conveyed that position to the government through the Home Affairs Minister, Pio Tikoduadua.

Legalities clear
The legal position is clear. George Speight was the last person to be sentenced to death in Fiji. In 2002, he wept as High Court judge Justice Michael Scott donned a black cap over his horse-hair wig to protect him from the eyes of God and pronounced that for his treason against the state, Speight should “hang from the neck until dead”.

He then used the famous accompanying words: “And may God have mercy on your soul”.

Soon afterwards, Speight’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. That was a pardon in itself. So axiomatically George Speight cannot be pardoned again by being released with the other 2000 conspirators who were sentenced to long terms in jail.

The Mercy Commission instigated by Siromi Turaga at the urging of the nationalist hardliners in the Coalition may have released Joe Nata and most notably so far, the Qaranivalu, Ratu Inoke Takiveikata, who instigated the mutiny in the RFMF in November 2000. But it cannot release George Speight.

Having been sentenced to death and having had that sentence commuted to life imprisonment, life means life for George. It is the law and for the Coalition to make an exception for the man who brought Fiji to its knees in 2000 would open a pandora’s box filled to the brim with a great many imponderables. Foremost of these would be the potential threat to national security.

George Speight isn’t some doddering and harmless old man but a super-fit and charismatic figure who is said to still command a great deal of authority in Naboro Prison. Those who have met him in recent years say he retains the strut and cockiness of the man who shot to global infamy by removing the former prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, at gunpoint and holding the nation’s MPs hostage in the parliamentary complex for 56 days.

He is also said to be unrepentant about what he did and remains a hard-line indigenous supremacist. And there is clear evidence that he doesn’t regard himself as being bound by the normal strictures of what constitutes appropriate behaviour for most people.

Great deal of upheaval
A well-meaning New Zealand couple I know who shall remain nameless went to visit George Speight in Naboro a few years ago thinking they could help him. But George’s idea of help was to ask whether he could have sex with the woman with her husband’s consent.

So his virility isn’t in question. Neither is his potential to cause a great deal of upheaval in Fiji.

The Fiji Times front page today
The Fiji Times front page today . . . “Nata on coup”. Image: Grubsheet/FT

So why is The Fiji Times actively, albeit indirectly, advocating for his release? Because it is evidently a mouthpiece for those elements in the Coalition who want to complete the agenda Sitiveni Rabuka and George Speight shared of entrenching iTaukei supremacy by any means, including their coups of 1987 and 2000.

Now that Sitiveni Rabuka has been restored to power, these elements now want George Speight freed. The difference is that Rabuka wasn’t sentenced to death for his treason. George Speight was.

It is the height of journalistic irresponsibility for The Fiji Times to provide a public soapbox for a criminal like Joe Nata to agitate for a course of action that is not only contrary to the law but has the potential to trigger all sorts of consequences that are contrary to the national interest.

There is already enough instability in Fiji right now without throwing fuel on the fire. And the Commander of the RFMF must be persuaded to hold the line against any attempt to free George Speight.

This is not ancient history. Indeed the man Speight removed at gunpoint, Mahendra Chaudhry, is still with us, still leads the Fiji Labour Party and still intends to contest the next election. He should be able to do so without the malignant presence of his tormentor.

Because far from intending to disappear quietly into the shadows in the event of his release, George Speight is evidently intent on a political comeback. And that must not be allowed to happen.

Fiji-born to missionary parents and a dual Fijian-Australian national, Graham Davis is an award-winning investigative journalist turned communications consultant who was the Fiji government’s principal communications advisor for six years from 2012 to 2018 and continued to work on Fiji’s global climate and oceans campaign up until the end of the decade. Republished from Grubsheet with permission.

George Speight (centre in tie)
Coup frontman George Speight (centre in tie). . . tearful after being handed his death sentence (later commuted to life in prison). Image:
Cafe Pacific Publisher
Cafe Pacific Publisher
Café Pacific's duty editor.
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