Fiji coup leader escapes death penalty as he is sentenced to life for treason

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The Independent Online

George Speight, who led an armed coup against the Fijian government nearly two years ago, avoided the death penalty yesterday after pleading guilty to treason.

Speight, who held hostage the government of Mahendra Chaudhry for 56 days in the name of indigenous rights, wept in the dock when Justice Michael Scott donned a black cap and ordered him to be hanged. But a few hours later his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the president of the South Pacific nation, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, a fellow indigenous Fijian and former political associate.

The shaven-headed former businessman, who entered an unexpected guilty plea at the start of his treason trial in the Fijian capital, Suva, is expected to serve about 10 years. For Speight, yesterday's proceedings drew a line under the tumultuous events of May 2000, when he marched into parliament and at gunpoint took hostage Mr Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, and his Cabinet.

But for Fiji, the reverberations continue to be felt. After the coup, the army seized power and declared martial law. The multiracial constitution was revoked and the country was suspended from the Commonwealth.

Democratic elections last September produced a government led by Laisenia Qarase, who shares many of Speight's nationalist aims. Divisions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians – brought in by Britain, the colonial ruler, in the late 19th century to work the sugar plantations – were heightened by the coup. The economy, particularly the tourism sector, has not recovered.

When the long-delayed treason trial began yesterday, Speight, dressed in a traditional sulu skirt and jacket, surprised the court by telling the judge: "I am guilty, your Lordship." His Australian defence lawyer, Ron Cannon, immediately lodged a plea for clemency and read out a plea from Speight urging his supporters to remain calm.

In a statement greeted with scepticism by observers, Mr Cannon told the High Court that his client was pleading guilty in an effort to help heal Fiji's ethnic wounds. As Speight sat in the dock, head bowed, Mr Cannon said he hoped the gesture would be "accepted by the community as our contribution to the stability of the country and to reconciliation".

Ethnic Indians make up 44 per cent of Fiji's population and control much of the economy. Speight's coup was the third staged since 1987 against Indian-dominated governments. His supporters, who included some traditional Fijian chiefs, want ethnic Indians to be stripped of political rights.

Speight was arrested after he freed his hostages and has since been held on the offshore prison island of Nukukau. Ten fellow coup plotters pleaded guilty to kidnap yesterday after the treason charges against them were dropped. They are still accused of murdering a policeman before ending their armed rebellion in July 2000. The hearing of Speight's case lasted little more than an hour.

Mr Qarase appointed an all-indigenous government after September's poll, but Mr Chaudhry – who was returned to parliament at the same time – won an appeal court ruling last week that his opposition party had a constitutional right to seats in government based on its showing at the election. Mr Qarase, who has threatened to resign rather than comply, is expected to go back to court.

Speight was also elected to parliament while in custody, but was disqualified after failing to attend sittings.

Suva, which was convulsed by riots and looting after the coup, was calm yesterday. Mr Cannon had warned Speight's supporters that any over-reaction would adversely affect "his application for mercy".