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Former Fiji prime minister not guilty in abuse of power case

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Former Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is pictured as he left Suva Magistrate Court on Sept. 7, 2023 following a hearing in his abuse of power case. Bainimarama was found not guilty on Thursday.

A Fiji court on Thursday found former strongman Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama not guilty of perverting the course of justice, cauterizing a potentially divisive case in a Pacific island country that has suffered four coups since the late 1980s.

Bainimarama and former Police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho had been accused of stopping a police investigation into complaints of financial mismanagement at the University of the South Pacific, which is headquartered in Fiji.

“I want to thank the many prayers from relatives and friends that have been said on our behalf,” a relaxed and smiling Bainimarama said as he left a Suva courthouse surrounded by supporters following the ruling. “Truth will prevail,” he said in a video livestreamed by his political party.

Qiliho, who stood next to Bainimarama outside the courthouse, was found not guilty of abuse of office.

Bainimarama’s 16 years in power ended in December after his Fiji First Party dropped below 50% of the vote in national elections, allowing opposition parties to form a coalition government led by former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka. Both men are former coup leaders – Rabuka in the late 1980s and Bainimarama in 2006.

A purge of Bainimarama appointees from important public positions followed the first change in government in Fiji since Bainimarama’s coup, along with a slew of investigations into alleged abuses of office and the removal of restrictions on the media.

A senior minister in Bainimarama’s government, former Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, was charged in May with abuse of office.

State prosecutors had alleged that Bainimarama and Qiliho, who was suspended in January, had “arbitrarily and in abuse of the authority of their respective offices, terminated an active police investigation” in 2020.

However, the judge, Seini Puamau, said prosecutors failed to make a compelling case that Bainimarama had advised Qiliho to end the police probe.

“He never made any suggestions to Commissioner Qiliho for him to stop the investigation,” she said. “He simply thought the commissioner had more important things on his plate” than personally handling the university investigation while Fiji was grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

Puamau also said that a state witness, former acting police commissioner Rusiate Tudravu, had an axe to grind following his dismissal from the Fiji Police Force for a reason unrelated to the court case.

Nothing in his evidence pointed to Bainimarama directing him or anyone else to stop the investigation, she said. Qiliho, meanwhile, had not been aware the investigation had ended until he was questioned by the Criminal Investigation Department in 2022, Puamau said.

Fiji, a linchpin nation in a region increasingly contested by major powers, had a burgeoning relationship with China under Bainimarama. Ties have been strained under Rabuka, who put a police cooperation agreement with China under reviewand reasserted the importance of maintaining a close security relationship with the United States and countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Fiji’s ties with China had blossomed after New Zealand, Australia and other countries sought to punish Bainimarama and his government for the 2006 coup.

Bainimarama left office grudgingly and stayed in the official prime minister’s residence for several weeks after Rabuka was confirmed as Fiji’s new leader by a vote in parliament.

He was suspended from parliament in February for three years after accusing the country’s president of failing to follow the constitution, which gives the military a guardian role over the nation’s politics, but remains leader of FijiFirst.

Source: BenarNews

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