Treason warning to expat Fiji judges
THE Australian judges who triggered Fiji’s latest political crisis have branded the Pacific nation’s president a dictator and warned that any expatriate judges who accept job offers from him could be seen as treasonous.
The attack on president Josefa Iloilo was unleashed yesterday after he had sacked the country’s judiciary, torn up the constitution and reappointed a prime minister whose regime the judges had declared illegal.
“He is effectively a dictator – that is a strong word, but that is the situation,” said Ian Lloyd, one of the three Australian judges on Fiji’s Court of Appeal who last Thursday ruled that military leader Frank Bainimarama’s seizure of power in a 2006 coup was illegal.
Mr Iloilo responded to the ruling by sacking all Fiji’s judges, declaring a 30-day state of emergency and, on Saturday, swearing Mr Bainimarama back into office as prime minister. Press censorship has also been imposed.
Mr Iloilo promised to appoint his own judges to replace those he had sacked. But Mr Lloyd warned that “any expat now thinking of taking a position will effectively be swearing allegiance to an illegal dictator”.
“On one view, you could be regarded as being treasonous because this regime is illegal,” he said. All three Australian judges fear that those judges who remain loyal to Fiji’s constitution are risking a confrontation with the military. The Australians – Mr Lloyd, Randall Powell SC and Francis Douglas QC – warned that this could come tomorrow when Fiji’s courts reopen for the first time since the coup.
The Australians, who normally practise as barristers in Sydney, ruled that Mr Iloilo had unlawfully purported to validate the 2006 coup that brought Mr Bainimarama to power.
Mr Douglas, who was sworn in by the president only last Monday, said he agreed with Mr Lloyd’s assessment that Mr Iloilo was now a dictator.
The three Australian judges handed down their controversial ruling on Thursday after walking past a contingent of between 50 and 80 uniformed troops who had arrived at the court building in Fiji’s capital, Suva.
“They weren’t in the court itself, but they were in the precincts of the court,” Mr Lloyd said. “They were scattered around the corridors and guarding the stairways. “It may have been to protect us, but we didn’t really think we needed protection from the public,” he said.
All three judges said yesterday that the President’s decree sacking the judiciary had no legal effect.
“We are still judges,” said Mr Douglas. And they believe that applies to all the magistrates and judges who have purportedly been sacked by the President.
Mr Lloyd, who was the last of the three to return to Sydney, said Australian consular officials in Fiji had urged him to leave the country immediately and to keep a low profile until he boarded a flight to Sydney on Saturday.
But before he left, he said he had learned that Fiji’s Chief Justice, Anthony Gates, wanted the country’s judges to appear in court tomorrow, despite their purported dismissal.
Chief Justice Gates, who holds joint British and Australian citizenship, had told Australian expatriate judge Tom Hickie that the best course of action would be to turn up for court on Tuesday “and see what happens”.
About six expatriate Australians are part of Fiji’s judiciary, including Chief Justice Gates, Justice Hickie and high-profile judge Jocelynne Scutt.
Mr Powell, Mr Lloyd and Mr Douglas urged the Law Council of Australia and the federal Government to take whatever steps they could to ensure the welfare of Fiji’s judiciary.
“They need as much help from outside as they can (get),” Mr Douglas said.
Mr Powell said he would not be surprised if Fiji’s judges continued to sit on cases.
“They just cannot be dismissed like this. They are still judges. They can only be dismissed for misconduct,” he said. “I am not saying they should make themselves martyrs by going into court.”
He said he believed anyone who sought to take their place would strike extreme problems.
“I am still a judge of Fiji for another two years but as a practical matter I will not be allowed back into the country – as least while the military is in charge.”
Mr Lloyd said Mr Iloilo, 88, appeared to be carrying out Mr Bainimarama’s instructions. Mr Douglas said he was extremely disappointed at the President’s reaction and it meant an opportunity to return Fiji to democracy had receded.
Fiji has been under pressure to hold elections soon, but Mr Iloilo said they would now not be held for five more years.