Thursday, January 07, 2010

Lawyer Speaks out Against False Charges

Jalal speaks out against false charges

On 1 January 2010 while breakfasting with my family at a hotel in Denarau, Nadi, Fiji, I was served by two officers from the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC) with seven charges alleging breaches of the Public Health (Hotels, Restaurant and Refreshment Bars) Regulations, the Food Safety Act and the Penal Code.

The charges relate to a business operated by a company , Bottomline Investments, of which I am a director but have not been involved in the day to day running. The restaurant charges normally attract a penalty of FJD20.00 (USD10.00) and are Suva City Council offences. A large number of businesses in Suva operate without a licence, whilst their applications for licences are being processed. The allegations are categorically denied and the charges will be strenuously defended.

These charges are part of a continuing strategy by the current military regime to target, persecute and silence critics. I am a human rights lawyer with a long record of public opposition to all unlawful (military and non-military) undemocratic regimes, including that of Sitiveni Rabuka, George Speight and now, Voreqe Bainimarama. Since the coup d’etat in December 2006 I have regularly called the current military regime to account for the violations of human rights in Fiji.

In December 2006, after my published opposition to the military takeover, I was threatened with rape, in graphic detail, via an anonymous call to my mobile. I was warned to shut my mouth or “they” would shut it for me. That call was traced to a phone booth just outside the gates of the Queen Elizabeth Barracks, home of the Fiji Military Forces. Twenty minutes prior to the call, Colonel (now Brigadier) Mohammed Aziz had asked Major Davina Chan to call my office to get my mobile number. I made a police complaint about that threat of rape including this information. Brig. Aziz has a close relationship with the FICAC lawyer, also a military officer , prosecuting me.

FICAC, as with most significant government bodies, is headed by a military officer. FICAC was established to investigate and prosecute corruption but instead has been used to also persecute persons not supportive of the military regime. The basic import of the charges against me is that the business was run without a licence – not a corruption matter – nor one which FICAC is legally permitted to prosecute. Such prosecutions are normally commenced by the Central Board of Health or the Suva City Council.

The maximum fine prescribed is FJD20 (approx USD20). The Penal Code charges allege a failure to obey a lawful order. No lawful (nor indeed unlawful) order has been issued against myself or the business.

The method of service chosen by FICAC appears to have been a deliberate attempt to humiliate and embarrass me in a public place with my family. I live and work in Suva, where the offices of FICAC are located, and where service would be a simple matter. At the time of service we were on holiday with friends and staying in their private villa, part of a hotel complex 200 km away. We were not registered at the hotel thus making it surprising that FICAC was aware of my whereabouts.

Fiji’s Military Forces Land Force Commander Brigadier Pita Driti, was reported in the media on 5 January 2006 warning Fiji citizens that they should remember “who is in control.” He went on to threaten any dissenters “...there are only a few people who [we] could term as adversaries - but I would discourage them from doing anything and I would like to tell them to keep low and try to cooperate with us in trying to maintain peace otherwise they will be in for something really hard in terms of how we will treat them this year.”

This current targeting of me by the regime follows legal action taken against my husband. He has had numerous charges presented and later withdrawn by FICAC. Similar charges relating to running a business without a licence were served on my husband prior to me, again in a manner designed to maximise humiliation and harm. When my husband’s charges were raised in the Magistrates Court on 29 December 2009, Magistrate Mary Muir queried the basis on which FICAC was prosecuting minor local authority misdemeanours. She suggested that it was outside FICAC’s jurisdiction and a matter for the Suva City Council.

There was an unedifying altercation between the FICAC prosecuting lawyer and the magistrate. It has been reported in the media on 5 January 2010 that shortly after this matter was first raised in court , the magistrate had her contract terminated. This is not an isolated incident. Other magistrates have had their contracts terminated after making decisions contrary to the submissions of FICAC.

It appears that the strategy of FICAC in the various actions taken against myself and my husband is not to go to trial, but to keep the matters pending in order to harass, intimidate, persecute and to wear us down. In particular they are likely to want to stop me from travelling to high level human rights meetings and to divert me from my work.

P. Imrana Jalal,

Human Rights Lawyer
Posted by Pacific in the Media

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