Government sneaked in amendments to a Bill this week which makes it mandatory for the courts to allow bail after two years, thus taking the discretion away from the courts.
The Fiji Labour Party claims the amendment was sneaked in without any notice so that Joe Nata and Ratu Timoci Silatolu, facing treason trial for their involvement in the May 2000 coup, can be released on bail.
Of the 13 conspirators now detained on Nukulau Island, only Nata and Silatolu are still awaiting trial. To date the two have deliberately delayed the trial getting underway: Silatolu by asking for a State lawyer to defend him and Nata by sacking his lawyer at the last minute and asking for a State lawyer.
The two have now been detained for more than two years and will have to be freed on bail once the Bill becomes law. Government bulldozed it through the Lower House on Wednesday despite strong opposition from the Fiji Labour Party. It still has to go through the Senate before it enters the statute books.
Speaking on the Bill in the House, Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry said he saw no need for the amendment. Under the current law, every accused person has the right to be released on bail “unless it is not in the interest of justice that bail should be granted”.
Whether it is in the interest of justice or not has always been left to the discretion of the courts. “When you write it into a statute, you are ordering the judge to do it,” Chaudhry said.
“The judges have no discretion there. That is a very dangerous thing to do and as I said, let us not be roped in by this two year thing. It has no significance.”
“We have no business, and this House has no business to order the judge on what to do. If the judge is satisfied with the arguments advanced by the accused counsel, the judge would grant bail and lay conditions.”
The stipulation of two years was merely a red herring, Chaudhry said. He asked the Government to withdraw the amendment in line with the doctrine of separation of powers.
Otherwise Fiji was simply being turned into a banana republic. “You are putting the seal of a banana republic on Fiji and we are trying to prevent that,” he said.
Coup leader George Speight pleaded guilty early this year and was given a three year jail term to be served on Nukulau. Ten other conspirators had the treason charge withdrawn and have been sentenced to 18 months jail for lesser charges.