Saturday, January 27, 2007

Fiji Military Silence & Hypocrisy

Army’s culture of silence

The Republic of Fiji Military Forces seems to have adopted a culture of silence on its involvement with international conman Peter Foster and the death of land surveyor Nimilote Verebasaga. This has seriously affected its credibility. Soon after taking power on December 5, the public was assured of transparency. Before the illegal removal of the elected Laisenia Qarase-led multi party government the current Interim Prime Minister, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, said the army would remove the democratically elected government to carry out a clean up campaign.He said the Qarase-led government was engaged in corrupt practices and this had contributed to the deteriorating state of Fiji. However during the takeover, Foster was in the hands of the police.After his arrest at Deuba he was admitted to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital for injury he sustained while jumping into the Navua River. He publicly said the police physically abused him but this was strongly denied as police said the injury inflicted to the head was from the propeller of the engine. When he appeared in court, Foster applied for bail. Suva lawyer Meboob Raza represented Foster. The international conman was granted cash bail of $5,000 ad was on a 24-hour house arrest at J J’s on the Park in central Suva. The Director of Public Prosecutions office had wanted the conman to be under house arrest at the Suva Central Police Station.Foster had pleaded not guilty to one count of defrauding the Immigration Department of Fiji by forging a Queensland Police Service Certificate relating to his previous convictions, one of intending and knowingly uttering the documents and a third count of misleading the department to obtain work permits in Fiji on August 7, 2006. It was at this point that the military came into the scene. He offered his service to the military to help in the clean up campaign. The military took this opportunity, although they are fully aware that they were dealing with an international conman.He first accused the deposed Prime Minister for having deposited his money in a foreign bank. This was later released for public consumption by the military without any evidence. Foster even though he was under a 24-hour house arrest, left for Denarau saying he was under military protection. He also told the military that he had evidence of vote rigging during the 2006 general election.

Foster had gambled his life by striking a deal with the military to provide what he described a secret recording that confirmed vote rigging by the SoqosoqoDuavata ni Leweivanua party during the 2006 general election.A report published by The Australian said, “According to Foster - who can be heard on the tapes exclaiming, “You rigged the urban seats? The police were bribed to turn their backs?” - he had put himself in danger to gather evidence of corruption and vote rigging orchestrated by senior officials of the ousted SDL party.” The tapes were ridiculed by the SDL’s campaign manager Jale Baba, who described them as the false work of a “master of deception”. Foster was still under miliatry protection when he absconded on a vessel that dropped him off Vanuatu. Foster was last seen with soldiers a day before he disappeared. Army spokesman Major Neumi Leweni said the army was interviewing soldiers who met Foster a day before his disappearance. He said the troops left Foster at his home in Denarau and returned the next day to find him missing. Now Foster has turned against the military and said it helped him escape to Vanuatu.We know that a junior military officer has been suspended. But the military should now come out clean on its involvement with this international conman. Why in the first place did the military want to engage itself with Foster when it had known well in advance his shady background. Will it use the evidence provided by Foster? Did it help in taking Foster to board the ship that took him to Vanuatu? He said in an interview in Vanuatu: “The military brought me on board.”

Another case of interest is the death of the late Nimilote Verebasaga a land surveyor of the Lands Department. The relatives and the public at large are lost on why the late Verebasaga was taken by the soldiers from his home. This was in fact his last journey from his home as later in the day police were back in the village to relay the message of his death to the family. At Mr Verebasaga’s funeral, Nakaulevu headman Timoci Talaki said: “Mr Verebasaga was treated like an animal. He was beaten up like a dog. They also had the nerve to change his clothes.” According to Mr Talaki Mr Verebasaga was taken from his home wearing jeans but when he went to identify his body he was in rumpus.Relatives said that the medical report stated Mr Verebasaga died from hemorrhage, secondary to blood loss caused by trauma.

Mr Talaki said all Mr Verebasaga’s ribs were broken. This is a very sad case. Surely it has discredited the military’s clean up campaign. When he was taken by military personnel that morning, the people of Nakaulevu never dreamt that was the last they would see Mr Verebasaga alive. It is time that the military cleared the air surrounding Mr Verebasagas’s death. Why was he taken to the military camp. Was he in the military’s hit list? Was he a threat to national security? Who gave the order for his arrest? What type of physical punishment was used? Did he die during the punishment? What is the rule of engagement during the state of emergency? Major Leweni has said that the families should go to the camp to know of the reason of the death. But these two events have tarnished the image of the military. People are supporting the clean up campaign but would prefer that everything should be done with transparency. What is happening now has raised the question on whether the military will be able to honestly investigate its own people. Now as the military looks into the two cases, its justice system is again under the public microscope. However, with the military strong stand against corruption we can safely dismiss the notion that the military will not carry out its investigation without fear or suspicion. But we can acknowledge that it faces its own unique challenges - from the culture of silence.

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