Saturday, February 13, 2010

Changing Fiji Life by Decrees

Rowan Callick, The Australian February 12, 2010

THE Fiji military government’s rush to remould the country is most evident in the militarisation of public life. But a second major thread of this program has now been highlighted: the issuing of decrees.

Three new decrees were promulgated on criminal law last week, taking past 50 the number of such decrees issued since the government abrogated the constitution in April last year.

The latest items are the 126-page Crimes Decree, the 85-page Criminal Procedure Decree and the 19-page Sentencing and Penalties Decree, handed down like the other decrees, becoming law without debate or discussion.

The Crimes Decree extends the geographical jurisdiction beyond Fiji itself. This means offences may be deemed to be committed by any citizen, corporation or resident of Fiji “in any place outside of Fiji”.

Offences may be considered to have occurred partly in Fiji “if a person sends a thing, or causes a thing to be sent from a point outside Fiji to a point in Fiji” or “from a point in Fiji to a point outside Fiji”.

An elaboration of this clause makes explicit that this is aimed in part at internet criticism of the regime, for it specifies that this “thing” might be “an electronic communication”.

The decree defines as a new indictable offence — triable summarily — for which the penalty is up to 10 years’ jail: making any statement or spreading any report, including by the internet, likely to incite dislike or hatred or antagonism of any community, or promoting “feelings of enmity or ill-will between different communities, religious groups or classes of the community, or otherwise prejudices the public peace by creating feelings of communal antagonism”.

It defines as “seditious intention” punishable by seven years’ jail, “an intention to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the government of Fiji to excite the inhabitants of Fiji to attempt to procure the alteration, otherwise than by lawful means, of any matter in Fiji as by law established to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the administration of justice in Fiji to raise discontent or disaffection amongst the inhabitants of Fiji or to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of the population of Fiji”.

This seven-year sentence can apply if a person “utters any seditious words, prints, publishes, sells, offers for sale, distributes or reproduces any seditious publication or imports any seditious publication, unless he has no reason to believe that it is seditious”.

Someone can now be jailed for one year “if without lawful excuse the person has in his possession any seditious publication”.

The new decree creates an offence of sacrilege, punishable by 14 years’ jail, for entering a place of worship and committing “any act of intentional disrespect”. It also imposes jail for up to five years for a person who “pretends to exercise or who practises witchcraft or sorcery”.

The new Criminal Procedure Decree restricts media coverage of committal hearings to the identity of the court, name of the magistrate, name, age and occupation of the accused, summary of the offence, name of the lawyer representing the accused, and whether the accused is in custody or on bail.

Contravention of this restriction means a fine of up to $F10,000 ($5700). The Crimes Decree also strengthens the laws on sexual offences, including making people who hire prostitutes liable to 12 years’ jail.

Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said these three decrees “put us on a modern step”.

“They help us to ensure that we have a criminal justice system that is fair,” he said.

Workshops have been held for prosecutors to introduce them to the new criminal law framework.

The Rev Akuila Yabaki, the Suva-based chief executive of the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum in Fiji, says the promulgation of so many decrees “is perpetuating the coup culture”.

He pointed out that “a new element of intention is now incorporated into crimes relating to treason. A person committing treason who can justify that they were acting in good faith or that their action was necessary, will now incur a sentence of less than 15 years or could even go free.”

Fresh considerations “mitigate the offence of treason by making it more acceptable in law if it is done with good intentions”.

These provisions also provide a very useful basis for a defence if the military regime is itself overthrown, or eventually concedes the holding of elections — following which its leaders risk incurring treason charges, as happened to George Speight and his leading co-conspirators, still in jail following their 2000 coup.

But failure to report knowledge of treason can now incur life imprisonment.

However, the new Crimes Decree has removed the statute of limitation of two years that was placed on treason, permitting Commodore Frank Bainimarama and his colleagues to be prosecuted, whereas previously they might have escaped prosecution altogether under this loophole.

The next decree to be issued, said military ruler Commodore Bainimarama, is a Media Decree, “to place greater emphasis on responsible reporting. It will encourage the media to re-look at their editorial policies and the contents of their articles and their television programs.”

Another decree, issued late last month, gives the government the power to stop paying pensions to people who criticise the regime, or bring disaffection against the judiciary

No comments: