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Fiji's Vice President Charged with Treason - 2003-05-08

The vice president of Fiji has been charged with treason for his alleged part in a nationalist coup three years ago. Ratu Jope Seniloli is the most senior figure to face charges over the uprising.

Ratu Jope Seniloli appeared in court Thursday charged with treason and sedition for his involvement in the May 2000 nationalist coup.

George Speight, the rebel leader who stormed Fiji's parliament and held elected members hostages for 56 days, appointed Ratu Jope Seniloli president in his illegal administration.

Ratu Seniloli later was sworn in as vice president, a post he still holds, despite his association with the nationalist rebels.

Treason and sedition are capital offenses in Fiji. Most officials believe that if convicted, Ratu Seniloli and the four other men accused with him will not receive the death penalty. These defendants, including a government minister, have not entered a plea and are due back in court in one month.

It has taken authorities almost three years to the day to bring charges against one of the most powerful public figures in Fiji.

"The director of public prosecutions has come under a lot of criticism for the delays in bringing many of these people to book. I think a lot of it… has… to do with simply a lack of resources," said Richard Naidu, a lawyer based in the capital Suva. He says criminal investigations are time-consuming in Fiji. "It doesn't work as efficiently as it does in other countries so I'm sure he's relieved to have finally got to this stage."

George Speight was convicted of treason last year for leading the nationalist coup that pit indigenous Fijians against ethic Indians, who make up nearly half the population. A judge ordered he be hanged but his sentence was commuted to life in jail.

George Speight's gunmen stormed the parliament building to depose Fiji's first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry.

The political uncertainty caused by the uprising caused continues in the South Pacific island and next month Mr. Chaudhry will question the legality of the existing government in the Supreme Court.

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase has refused to offer opposition parties cabinet positions in his administration. Mr. Chaudhry says this is a violation of Fiji's constitution.