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Fiji Police Arrest 4 in Connection With Kidnap Plot - 2002-01-03

Four men are charged with plotting to kidnap Fiji's prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, in an attempt to free coup leader George Speight from prison. Mr. Speight is awaiting trial on treason charges for overthrowing Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry.

The four men, including George Speight's cousin Varinava Tiko, appeared before a magistrate in the Fijian capital, Suva.

In court documents, prosecutors claim the four are Fijian nationalists and supporters of Mr. Speight. The police accuse them of planning to kidnap Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and the country's most senior army commander, Frank Bainimarama, to force the release of the coup leader.

Fiji television reports the defendants planned to kidnap other senior military and political figures, including the attorney general.

All four have denied the charges. They are being held in custody and will appear in court again in a week.

George Speight led an armed gang of nationalists into the parliament compound in the capital in May 2000. They overthrew the first Indo-Fijian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, and held Mr. Chaudhry and members of his Cabinet hostage for eight weeks.

The rebels say they were defending indigenous rights, which they claim have been eroded by the country's ethnic Indian minority.

For the past 18 months, Mr. Speight has been imprisoned on Nukulau Island. Along with a dozen advisers, the former businessman is expected to stand trial for treason next month. The charge can carry the death penalty, but there have been no executions in Fiji for more than 30 years.

In September, Mr. Speight won a seat in Parliament for the Conservative Alliance, a hardline nationalist party. He was later dismissed from his seat for failing to attend parliamentary sessions.