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Speight's Death Sentenced Commuted

Fiji's president has commuted the death sentence of coup leader George Speight to life in prison. Speight was sentenced to death earlier Monday, after pleading guilty to treason for overthrowing the government two years ago.

George Speight broke down and wept when Judge Justice Michael Scott ordered that he be hanged. "May the lord have mercy on your soul," said the judge, who donned a ceremonial black cap to hand down his decision. A few hours later, however, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo commuted the sentence to life in prison.

Speight's attorneys and others in the capital of Suva had expected the move. The government said last week it would introduce legislation to take the death penalty off the statute books and replace it with life in prison.

Speight and his gang of armed ethnic Fijians stormed parliament in May 2000. They overthrew the Indian-dominated government of Mahendra Chaudhry, and held members of his Cabinet at gunpoint inside the parliament compound for 56 days. The rebels claimed the Chaudhry administration was stripping away the rights of the country's indigenous majority.

Speight was arrested and charged with treason shortly after the hostages were freed in a deal brokered by the military.

The coup caused economic and social chaos. Racial divisions between the indigenous community and the Indo-Fijian minority deepened. Thousands of people lost their jobs in the recession that followed, as key industries, especially tourism, went into free fall.

Earlier, Speight looked calm and confident as he walked into court. The weeping figure with his head bowed as the death penalty was passed stood in stark contrast to the confident and charismatic man who brought down democracy in May 2000.

Defense lawyers say Speight appealed to his supporters to remain calm in the aftermath of the High Court sentence, amid fears of a nationalist backlash.