Relations with Fiji take another backward step

Military forces are often accused of ‘brutality’ while dealing with prisoner of war, but a recent incident in the neighbouring Fiji involving the country’s citizens has riled our politicians in Treasury and Opposition benches alike to close ranks and express their condemnation.

Their ire followed a nine-minute video clipping last fortnight showing two men being subject to severe beating at the hands of the military.

The visual depicted one man handcuffed in the back of a Ute being beaten with batons and rods, while another man was on the ground being tugged at by a dog.

The clipping made its run on the internet through websites and You Tube, watched by thousands of people.

The UN Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International were among the first to criticise the military regime of Commodore Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, who seized power in a coup in December 2006 to eradicate corruption, create a new Constitution and accord equal rights to Fijians for the first time in the troubled history of the South Pacific country.

His intentions have often been questioned by many leaders of the Western world, while Fijians, especially of Indian origin, have been largely supportive of the leader.

Serious accusations

International groups have accused the Fiji military of carrying out the assaults on the two men, even as the Fijian Police said that they were investigating.

Amnesty International said that the video was taken sometime last year, that the victims of assault were escapees from prison, and that they were being abused after recapture by the authorities.

But this claim was later stated to be untrue.

Mr Bainimarama himself was oblivious of international angst, stood by his officers who were implicated in the video, saying that they were doing their duty and ‘making sure that we sleep peacefully at night.”

Dismissing concerns expressed by non-government organisations about the video, he said that they (the organisations) “were paid by the international community to jump up and down every time we do something.”

Regime accused

The Citizens Constitutional Forum, a Fijian pro-democracy group criticised Mr Bainimarama, saying that his comments showed a lack of commitment to human rights in the face of numerous allegations of serious violations by the security forces.

“In making that statement he condones the violation of human rights and undermines the powers of the institution of the rule of law and justice in Fiji,” Reverend Akuila Yabaki, Executive Director of the Forum told Radio New Zealand.

A few days later, news was at hand stating that the authorities had sacked three prison wardens over the incident.

“I can confirm that three prison officers have been sacked in relation to the video that was posted on the Internet,” Fiji Prisons and Corrections Service spokeswoman Ana Tudrau Tamani told AFP.

But she declined to provide further details, saying that a police investigation into the video was still underway.

Parliament disapproves

On March 12, Mr Goff moved a motion in Parliament condemning the beating of two Fijians, blaming the Fijian military for the serious breach of human rights.

The House passed the motion unanimously.

Mr Goff called on the interim government to publicly condemn the use of torture to hold people to account, and demanded that the country’s leaders follow the UN guidelines on civil rights.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully was not present in Parliament when Mr Goff moved the resolution.

But Prime Minister John Key described the incident in Fiji as ‘alarming,’ saying that Mr McCully would raise it with his Fijian counterpart.

Mr Goff said the video recording brought to light a pattern of behaviour by Fijian security forces towards detainees.

Restoring rights

“When security forces put themselves above the law, it puts all citizens at risk. This includes those who express opposition to the actions of the military government in suppressing other human rights such as freedom of speech, a free press and the right to elect and change a government.

“New Zealanders want to see Fiji re-join the Pacific community of nations as a country that practices democracy and respects the rights of its own people,” Mr Goff said.

He said if the regime condoned the brutality of security forces, it diminished confidence that Fiji could restore democracy, and tarnished its image as a country where people felt comfortable visiting.

Mr Key has said New Zealand was concerned about Fiji’s promise of an election in 2014 after the interim government dismissed many of the recommendations made by an independent Constitutional Commission.

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