Fiji’s interim Government wants to have a Perth barrister disciplined for an article he wrote in The Australian newspaper.
The article, by barrister John Cameron, questioned the legitimacy of Fiji’s post-coup judges and infuriated the authorities in Suva.
“This is getting completely out of control,” Dr Cameron said.
He feared he could be jailed by the post-coup authorities if he returned to Fiji next month to speak at a conference.
“I could go and find myself dragged before a court and told to apologise. And if I don’t, they will lock me up,” he said.
The complaint, by Fiji solicitor-general Christopher Pryde, is the latest chapter in a long-running dispute between the post-coup authorities and their critics in the democracy lobby and the media.
The article at the heart of the affair was published in The Australian’s legal affairs section on April 25 and later triggered intense debate in Fiji when it was reprinted by The Fiji Times and The Fiji Sun.
Fiji Times managing director Evan Hannah was arrested and deported on May 2.
Dr Cameron triggered a sharp response from Fiji attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum by writing in these pages that judges appointed after Fiji’s 2006 coup were “usurpers”.
“The orders of such usurpers are unlawful and of no legal effect,” he wrote.
“It’s not simply the right of counsel to challenge such orders but as officers of the court their duty is to do so,” Dr Cameron wrote.
Soon after the article appeared, Sayed-Khaiyum had accused The Australian and the Fiji newspapers of being “completely irresponsible”, adding thast the newspapers “colluded” with Dr Cameron to discuss issues that were before the courts.
Pryde’s complaint was sent to the Fiji Law Society on April 30, just before Hannah’s expulsion.
It said Dr Cameron’s article was sub judice and breached the legal professional rules against commenting on matters before the courts.
It also accused Dr Cameron of contempt of court and abuse of process over two cases in which Dr Cameron had represented Fiji’s leading democracy campaigner, Angie Heffernan.
Ms Heffernan had unsuccessfully challenged the legitimacy of the post-coup regime and the post-coup judges.
Ms Heffernan is now facing an order for costs of $128,000.
In July last year, a judge of the Fiji Court of Appeal, John Byrne, produced a judgment in one of those cases in which he accused Dr Cameron of making “extraordinary and insolent” assertions in his submissions.
Justice Byrne said Dr Cameron had implied that the case had been delayed so it could be “heard by a military appointee”.
“There’s no doubt that the ‘military appointee’ is myself and it is then alleged that I might be more inclined to entertain an ex-parte application and deliver a favourable decision.
“It imputes not possible but rather likely bias for which there is no foundation. For such a submission to be made by counsel of Dr Cameron’s claimed experience is ill-becoming of an officer of this court.
“In my opinion it is a clear example of contempt,” Justice Byrne said.
Pryde’s complaint also referred to a judgment of High Court judge Devendra Pathik.
On April 11 Justice Pathik handed down reasons that said: “I must observe and comment on the contemptuous behaviour on the part of solicitors on record in this case when they do not want to name His Excellencies (sic) judges properly in the heading to the case.”
Justice Pathik objected to the fact that Justice Byrne had been described as “John Edward Byrne formerly a judge of the High Court of Fiji”.
Justice Pathik also objected to the fact that Fiji’s acting chief justice Anthony Gates had not been referred to using that title but as “Harold Cumberland Thomas Gates, a judge of the High Court of Fiji”.
Dr Cameron said yesterday that the complaint about his conduct was itself an abuse of process.
The solicitor-general was attempting to use the disciplinary processes of the Fiji Law Society to deal with matters that were beyond its jurisdiction.
The complaint had accused Dr Cameron of committing contempt of court – a criminal offence that should be dealt with by the courts, not the Fiji Law Society, he said.
“If the courts deal with it and I am convicted then the Law Society can say I have brought discredit upon the profession and they can then deal with it as a disciplinary matter,” Dr Cameron said.
“And how can it possibly be a contempt to publish a newspaper article in Australia?”
He said he was not responsible for the fact that The Fiji Times and The Fiji Sun had reprinted his article.
He also questioned whether it was a breach of the sub judice rule to discuss civil litigation that did not involve a jury when the discussion took place in a newspaper published in another country.
He said Sayed-Khaiyum had published a press statement discussing the challenge to the post-coup judges.
“The attorney-general, who would be the prosecutor in a contempt matter, has done it himself,” Dr Cameron said.
Since Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in Fiji in 2006, six Australian judges have resigned from their part-time positions with the Fiji judiciary.
On the same day that Evan Hannah was deported from Fiji, Federal Court judge Robert French revealed that when his judicial commission in Fiji expired, he would not accept a renewed appointment.
Several other pre-coup Australian judges remain part of the Fiji judiciary.