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Fiji Coup Trial Postponed Again - 2001-08-24

In Fiji, the treason trial of coup leader George Speight has again been postponed, this time because of a legal challenge over the age of the judge. This latest court delay comes the day before elections begin to vote for Fiji's first democratic government since the May 2000 coup.

Nationalist coup leader George Speight, facing treason charges, arrived at the at Fiji's High Court in Suva amid tight security Friday.

Justice Peter Summon heard legal arguments that he would be too old to preside over the case, since he would pass the mandatory retirement age of 65 during the seven month trial. He then referred the matter to the appeals court for a ruling and adjourned the trial until January.

The treason case involving George Speight, a failed businessman, and 12 of his close advisers is turning into a drawn-out trial, after a series of legal challenges since his arrest a year ago.

Mr. Speight lead an armed assault on the Parliament in May, 2000, and held the government of Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister hostage for nearly two months. The rebel leader demanded ethnic Indians be barred from politics and special rights given to native Fijians.

George Speight does not deny the charges, but insists he was granted immunity from prosecution as part of a deal to end the hostage crisis.

Meanwhile, the man deposed by Mr. Speight, former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry, cast one of the first votes in a crucial post-coup election. He joined 200 other citizens casting early special votes, as Fiji took the first step back to democratic rule. General voting starts Saturday and lasts a week to give people on Fiji's approximately 300 scattered islands time to get to the ballot box.

Mr. Chaudhry will lead the powerful Fiji Labor Party into the poll and is widely seen as a front-runner in the election.

George Speight, is a candidate, too, for the newly-formed Conservative Alliance, an extreme nationalist party. He has been running his campaign from a prison cell.

Eighteen parties and 351 candidates are contesting the election, the result of which is unlikely to be known before September 6.