Fiji coup leader George Speight has death sentence reduced to life in prison

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Fijian coup leader George Speight, sentenced to death for treason nearly two years after storming Parliament with a gang of nationalist gunmen, had his sentence reduced to life in prison by the country's president.

Attorney General Qoriniasi Bale said President Josefa Iloilo had signed a decree commuting the death sentence for Speight to life.

The commuting of the death penalty followed a surprise move in the High Court where Speight pleaded guilty to a charge of treason at the start of his trial in the capital, Suva.

The order reducing Speight's sentence "was signed by his excellency the president this afternoon. That is now the legal position," Bale said.

People sentenced to life in Fiji normally serve about 10 years in jail.

Earlier, Speight sat in the dock, his shaven head bowed, and wept as presiding judge Justice Michael Scott put on a black cap and imposed the death penalty.

Speight's partner, sitting in the gallery behind him, also wiped tears from her eyes as Scott ordered Speight to be hanged.

"May the lord have mercy on your soul," Scott said.

Lawyers for Speight did not immediately react to the president's decision.

Speight's Australian attorney, Ron Cannon, had told the High Court Speight was pleading guilty to help heal the country's ethnic wounds.

"This would then put the matter to rest and we hope will be accepted by the community as our contribution to the stability of the country and to reconciliation," Cannon said.

Before Iloilo issued the decree, Cannon had warned Speight's supporters that any overreaction such as rioting could only have "an adverse effect on his application for mercy."

Despite the volatile events in court, police reported no incidents in the capital, Suva, or in other parts of the country.

Fiji Labor Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry, whose government was ousted by Speight's coup, said after the death sentence was passed he was "relieved" the matter was ended. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase declined comment on the trial outcome.

Ten of Speight's 12 accomplices also had treason charges against them reduced to less serious charges at a separate hearing Monday.

They were charged with illegally detaining hostages during a 56–day standoff with the army following the storming of Parliament during which Speight and his men held almost the entire Fijian government hostage.

Heading into court early Monday wearing a traditional Fijian sulu skirt, Speight had looked calm and confident. But he appeared grim as he was led out again following the imposition of the death sentence.

Police set up roadblocks on main roads into the capital and armed soldiers pushed back small groups of spectators who turned out to watch Speight and his co–accused arrive at court in a red police bus.

The treason charges followed the group's armed takeover of Parliament amid riots, arson and looting of businesses in central Suva 21 months ago. The ethnic Indian–led government of Chaudhry was ousted by the indigenous Fijian coup in May, 2000.

The indictment against Speight and his supporters listed 13 "overt acts" by the coup conspirators, including the armed takeover of Parliament and taking the prime minister, his Cabinet and other lawmakers hostage.

Chaudhry was the first prime minister from the ethnic Indian community that makes up about 44 percent of Fiji's 820,000 population and wields considerable economic and political power. Indigenous Fijians account for just over half the population.

The indictment accused the coup makers of forming an illegal "Taukei (indigenous Fijian) Civilian Government," and unlawfully trying to overturn the country's constitution.

Speight launched his coup saying he wanted to restore political power to indigenous Fijians.

The group threatened the lives of lawmakers, "fomented civil commotion and unrest" in parts of Fiji and supported rioting and looting during their armed insurrection, the statement added.

The coup leaders are also accused of the murder of a policeman before the end of their armed rebellion in late July 2000.

Elections last year installed a new government led by Qarase, an ethnic Fijian who supports parts of Speight's nationalist agenda.

The country is slowly recovering from the effects of the coup. Crucially, the country's vital tourism industry is beginning to recover.

Speight never denied leading the uprising, but claims he was granted immunity during the coup by the Great Council of Chiefs, the country's traditional rulers whose political role is largely symbolic but who still command great respect and influence among ethnic Fijians.