Fiji’s former PM Bainimarama jailed for one year for obstructing justice

As PM he took the oath of allegiance and his actions were a breach of public trust, High Court judge said.
By BenarNews Staff
2024.05.09
Suva
Fiji’s former PM Bainimarama jailed for one year for obstructing justice Fiji’s former prime minister Frank Bainimarama is escorted to prison from a Suva court after being sentenced on May 9, 2024 to one year in prison for obstructing justice.
BenarNews

Fiji’s former strongman prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, left a Suva court house in handcuffs Thursday after being sentenced to one year in prison for obstructing justice – a ruling that bars him from seeking public office for nearly a decade.

Acting Chief Justice Salesi Temo also sentenced suspended Police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho to two years prison for abuse of office. 

The pair were found guilty in March after facing trial for their roles in halting a 2020 police investigation into alleged financial mismanagement at the University of the South Pacific. 

Temo said Bainimarama’s sentencing and the conditions of his imprisonment had taken into account his health problems. “Although he will be in the state's custody, he is to be treated humanely,” he said.

Bainimarama and Qiliho were escorted in handcuffs from the Suva court house for transport to prison minutes after the sentencing, anxiety visible on their faces. The former leader used a handkerchief to conceal the cuffs holding his wrists together.

Qiliho 01.jpg
Fiji’s suspended police commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho is escorted to prison from a Suva court after being sentenced on May 9, 2024 to two years in prison for abuse of office. (BenarNews)

Ahead of his sentencing, there was a heavy security presence in the capital and around the High Court.

Defence lawyer Devanesh Sharma said Bainimarama’s legal team had hoped for a suspended sentence and an appeal is on the table. 

“However, we have to be practical about this. The sentence falls on the lower scale but we will go back and look at our options,” he said.

Bainimarama, who came to power in a 2006 coup that he argued was needed to preserve racial harmony in Fiji, held sway over the Pacific island country for 16 years with a combination of military force, legal harassment of political opponents and a draconian media law that stifled the press. 

He moved Fiji closer to China after the United States, Australia, France and New Zealand imposed sanctions after the coup and he later became known as a Pacific islands advocate for action to limit climate change. 

Fiji’s Crimes Act allows a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment for conspiring to defeat justice. Under Fiji’s constitution, Bainimarama’s conviction makes him ineligible to run for public office for eight years.

Temo in his ruling said Bainimarama had taken an oath of allegiance as prime minister and his actions were a breach of the public’s trust. Qiliho had clearly abused his role as the country’s top police officer, he said.

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Fiji’s former prime minister Frank Bainimarama arrives at Suva court to be sentenced on May 9, 2024 for obstructing justice. (BenarNews)

Bainimarama’s years in power ended in December 2022 after his Fiji First Party dropped below 50% of the vote in national elections, allowing opposition parties to form a coalition government led by Sitiveni Rabuka. Both men are former coup leaders – Rabuka in the late 1980s with two coups that sought to reassert indigenous Fijian political power.

A purge of Bainimarama appointees from important public positions followed the change in government along with the removal of restrictions on the media and a slew of investigations into alleged abuses of office.

Bainimarama still commands a significant following in Fiji, a country of nearly 1 million people. The initial enthusiasm for Rabuka’s coalition government has faded amid cost-of-living increases, slowing economic growth and scandals involving government ministers.

Former Fiji Times editor-in-chief Netani Rika, who was forced out of the newspaper by the Bainimarama government, said the country could have gone down a better path if a quarter century ago it had openly addressed tensions between iTaukei indigenous Fijians and Fijians of Indian descent

“I think it's a sad day, It should not have come to this,” he told RFA affiliate BenarNews. 

“I feel sad especially for the families of both men. I feel sad because this is a waste of a year for Bainimarama and two years for Qiliho. Their families will suffer the most,” he said.

“It is high time they do something about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We need to take issues out once and for all. Had we done that, we would have never seen a day like this.” 

Hours before the sentencing, Bainimarama tweeted his dismay at the latest scientific report to predict the world would not achieve its goal of limiting average temperature rise to 1.5C. He did not mention his legal woes.

“Put another way: the world’s experts expect the erasure of low-lying island nations,” he wrote.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.

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