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Fijian PM Accused of Complicity in Coup - 2002-02-22

In Fiji, police briefly moved in to secure Parliament Friday after a walk-out by the ruling party. The move came after an opposition lawmaker accused the nationalist prime minister of being involved in a May 2000 coup.

Members of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's nationalist government walked out of Parliament Friday during a heated debate on abolishing the death penalty.

During the debate, opposition lawmaker Lekh Ram Vash-noi accused Mr. Qarase of complicity in the May 2000 coup against Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry. Mr. Vash-noi was held hostage with the Chaudhry government during that coup.

Police moved in briefly after the walk out to ensure calm. A senior police officer said he was worried about how the public would react to what was said and done in Parliament.

Two years ago the Parliament was the scene of a 56-day hostage stand-off. It began when George Speight, a failed businessman, hijacked the ethnically-mixed Chaudhry government,claiming it was eroding the rights of indigenous Fijians.

Following the coup, Mr. Qarase was chosen by the military to head in an interim government. He went on to win office September in the first elections since the coup.

As for Speight, he was convicted of treason this week and sentenced to death. But hours later the president commuted the sentence to life in prison while Parliament considers abolishing capital punishment.

During the Speight trial, there were allegations that the coup was ordered and financed by powerful yet unnamed public figures.

But Friday was the first time anyone had publicly pointed the finger at Prime Minister Qarase.

This is the latest turmoil to hit Fiji's fragile government.

Earlier this month, the Appeals Court ruled Prime Minister Qarase has violated the constitution by excluding members of the opposition Labor Party from his administration. Under the law, Labor, headed by former Prime Minister Chaudhry, won enough seats to hold posts in the government.

Mr. Qarase is planning an appeal to the Supreme Court, saying his government would be paralyzed by forcing two parties with such opposite views to work to together.

A harmonious outcome to this constitutional dispute may be unlikely and Fiji seems to be on course for more political chaos.