Fiji coup leader sentenced to death

Fijian coup leader George Speight was sentenced to death today for treason after leading the May 2000 storming of parliament that plunged the Pacific nation into political turmoil and economic crisis.

Fijian coup leader George Speight was sentenced to death today for treason after leading the May 2000 storming of parliament that plunged the Pacific nation into political turmoil and economic crisis.

The sentence, however, was expected to be reduced to life imprisonment, lawyers said.

Speight sat in the dock in the capital Suva, his shaven head bowed, and wept as presiding judge Justice Michael Scott put on a black cap and imposed the death penalty.

Speight’s wife, sitting in the gallery behind him, also wiped tears from her eyes as Scott ordered Speight to be hanged.

‘‘May the lord have mercy on your soul,’’ Scott said.

Defence lawyers said they expected Fijian president Ratu Josefa Iloilo to sign off on an order reducing the sentence to life imprisonment before the end of the day.

Speight’s Australian lawyer, Ron Cannon, told the court Speight wanted to plead guilty to help close the country’s ethnic wounds.

‘‘This would then put the matter to rest and we hope will be accepted by the community as our contribution to the stability of the country and to reconciliation,’’ Cannon said.

Prosecutors and defence lawyers both requested that the judge recommend the immediate commuting of the sentence to life imprisonment.

Cannon said this would ‘‘avoid any further tension in the country.’’

Earlier, Speight looked calm and confident as he walked into court wearing a traditional Fijian skirt known as a sulu.

He was ‘‘in very high spirits and looking forward to the start of the case’’, his wife, Torika, said before her husband’s arrival.

Police set up roadblocks on main roads into Suva and armed soldiers pushed back small groups of spectators who turned out to watch Speight and his 12 co-accused arrive at court in a red police bus.

The treason charges follow the group’s armed takeover of parliament amid riots, arson and looting of businesses in central Suva 21 months ago. The ethnic Indian-led government of prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry was ousted by the indigenous Fijian coup in May, 2000.

The indictment against Speight and his supporters lists what it calls 13 ‘‘overt acts’’ by the coup conspirators, including the armed takeover of parliament and taking the prime minister, his Cabinet and other MPs hostage.

As part of Speight’s decision to plead guilty, prosecutors separated his case from those of his 12 co-conspirators.

After sentence was passed on Speight, defence lawyers said the other 12 coup plotters were expected to have their treason charges reduced later in the day. It was not immediately clear what charges they would now face.

Chaudhry was the first prime minister from the ethnic Indian community that makes up about 44% of Fiji’s 820,000 population and wields considerable economic and political power. Indigenous Fijians account for just over half the population.

The indictment accuses the coup makers of forming an illegal ‘‘Taukei (indigenous Fijian) Civilian Government’’, and unlawfully trying to overturn the country’s constitution.

Speight launched his coup saying he wanted to restore political power to indigenous Fijians.

The group threatened the lives of MPs, ‘‘fomented civil commotion and unrest’’ in parts of Fiji and supported rioting and looting during their armed insurrection, the statement added.

The coup leaders are also accused of the murder of a policeman before the end of their armed rebellion in late July 2000.

Elections last year installed a new government led by prime minister Laisenia Qarase, an ethnic Fijian who supports parts of Speight’s nationalist agenda.

The country is slowly recovering from the effects of the coup. Crucially, the country’s vital tourism industry is beginning to recover.

Speight never denied leading the uprising, but claims he was granted immunity during the coup by the Great Council of Chiefs, the country’s traditional rulers whose political role is largely symbolic but who still command great respect and influence among ethnic Fijians.

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