Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fiji "plot" a cover for a military coup?

by Michael Field

An Auckland man said to have headed a conspiracy to kill Fiji's Voreqe Bainimarama denies he wanted to do so but says dissident army officers were using him as cover to plot another coup.

"Its tragic that innocent people go to jail when the criminality belongs to the military," Fiji born Ballu Khan said after eight people, including a paramount chief and a spy service boss, were jailed in Suva on Friday.

Five assessors found the eight - and Khan - guilty; three of the assessors have since turned out to have been serving members of the Fiji Military Forces.

In a case rich with ghosts from past coups, a military regime appointed judge, Paul Madigan convicted the eight of conspiring to kill Bainimarama.

Khan was not on trial but Madigan repeatedly named him as the leader of a plot to kill Bainimarama who has installed himself as prime minister following his December 2006 coup.

The hearsay evidence presented painted an unconvincing picture of a keystone cop plot involving New Zealand purchased arms used in an attack on Suva's Queen Elizabeth Barracks (QEB). New Zealand explosives were to blow up Nadi airport and the Monasavu dam.

Two low ranking military intelligence men who claimed to have infiltrated the plot said they were told the Australian and New Zealand Governments supported the plot - something flatly denied in Wellington.

Mr Khan, who made his money selling IT products to government agencies under the overthrown government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, was a target of Bainimarama's corruption allegations after the 2006 coup.

His newly created Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption investigated Khan but, he says, they found nothing to go to court with. Madigan had been a lawyer on the commission before Bainimarama abrogated the constitution and sacked most of the judges.

Madigan was among a handful of people to go on the bench that operates under military council decrees.

Khan was with the eight in late 2007 when they were arrested outside Suva.

He was severely beaten up and later won a permanent stay of prosecution. He now lives in Auckland.

Naitasiri chief Ratu Inoke Takiveikata was also arrested and on Friday was jailed for seven years, while others got lesser terms.

They include five former special forces soldiers who had taken part in a 2000 mutiny that had planned to kill Bainimarama. Eight people died then in the attack on QEB.

Bainimarama survived by running away.

Takiveikata was found guilty of organising that mutiny, but the conviction was thrown out on appeal.

Khan said that with the military now controlling Fiji's courts, Bainimarama was settling old scores.

"There was never a plot, we had never ever had a plot," Khan said.

"How can this group, a few former soldiers, the rest of us civilians, how can we take on a task that they have described?"

He said the members of Fiji Military Intelligence had come to them and said they were unhappy with Bainimarama's regime.

The trial heard the officers acknowledge that none of the accused had ever said they wanted to kill the commodore.

The suggestion to kill - either by sniper, by running a car into him or by food poisoning - had come from Military Intelligence.

Khan said they knew the soldiers from the beginning.

"The first reaction was, what are you trying to do to us, you are trying to set us up?"

Khan believes Bainimarama was behind the arrests.

"This was settling old scores, and where I became a major target was in Bainimarama's hatred of New Zealand... I became a hated person in Bainimarama's eye because I was a kiwi."

Bainimarama wanted to get Takiveikata because of the 2000 mutiny as well as the special forces soldiers who had served their time for taking part in the mutiny, and were back in the community.

Behind Khan's alleged plot is the questionable loyalty of the Fiji Military Force's number four, Lieutenant Colonel Tevita Uluilakeba Mara.

Son of Fiji's founding prime minister and president, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, he heads the Third Infantry Regiment whose 500 men are based at QEB and control Suva.

"They have got their own plot to take out Bainimarama and we were their safety net, the collateral to any risks.... We did not plan anything. They came with all the planning."

During the trial Takiveikata said two military men showed up at his home. One was from Military Intelligence who told him Mara wanted to know about coup rumours.

He went to QEB and met Mara, a relative. Other officers were with him.

"They asked me if I and others were preparing to fight the military," Takiveikata said.

"I told them that I was not a military man. I told them that the rumours were a lie."

Mara did not appear in court as a witness.

Madigan in sentencing the men said Fiji was "in a very fragile state" and that if the plot had succeeded "the consequences are unthinkable".

"There has been no evidence before this Court of any thought given to the fate of the average Fijian should the country be suddenly rid of its president, prime minister and army the plans of the accused were totally self-serving, thoughtless and greedy."

No comments: