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Driti (L), Mara (R)
Former Land Force Commander Pita Driti has been found guilty of inciting mutiny and is now remanded in custody as he awaits sentencing on the 10th of December. The maximum possible sentence is 15 years. Also accused is Ratu Tevita Mara who fled the county last year rather than face trial.
The case is of more than usual interest because of some obvious and some perhaps not so obvious issues raised. Driti and Mara supported Bainimarama's removal of the Qarase Government in December 2006. Mara was almost certainly involved in the well publicised abuse of women protesters in early 2007. But later they appeared to be disenchanted with the way the Bainimarama government was proceeding. They seemed particularly concerned that the Military Council, of which they were members, did not have as much influence over Cabinet decisions as they had hoped. And they were very opposed to the influence of the Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayer-Khaiyum, the chief architect of many government reforms and initiatives.
The case in Court
The prosecution claimed that Driti had made seditious comments to junior officers about the influence of the A-G on the Prime Minister, and had on two occasions asked witness Lt Colonel Manasa Tagicakibau to use his private intelligence cell to conduct surveillance on the Attorney General. Tagicakibau's understanding was that the surveillance was to help "remove or eliminate" the A-G, and his impression was that the A-G's life was to be taken. Driti admitted the surveillance but denied its alleged intent. He said the option of eliminating the AG was not his. It was proposed by Brigadier General Mohammed Aziz and that he had only heard of it through Ratu Tevita Mara. He said he had not brought the issue to the PM's attention because he thought he was being set up by Aziz and wanted to investigate the issue himself.
The prosecution also claimed that Driti knew of the "Sudan Plan" and failed to pass on this information to the PM. The plan was to cancel PM's passport when he visited Sudan in 2010 and not to allow him back in the country. The Military would then ask the President to dissolve the Bainimarama government, appoint an interim administration made up of the former SDL party including the Great Council of Chiefs and the Methodist Church, send the Bainimarama family to another country, and bring in troops from Australia and NZ to secure the border to contain any internal conflicts from disgruntled people. Driti admitted he knew of the plan but said its initiators were Mara and Aziz.
Evidence was also produced that showed Driti had met with Mara in September and October 2010, after Mara has been sent on leave, and attention was also drawn to the number of unaccounted weapons and ammunition at the Grand Pacific Hotel building site occupied by the military.
The defence produced no witnesses. Driti spoke in his own defence, admitting knowledge but denying culpability, and saying he had not reported the plans because he thought he was being framed or set up.
The Assessors and the Judge
In the Driti case the Judge instructed the three asssessors to concentrate on the facts and put aside their personal and political opinions. Whether they did we cannot know but they found Driti not guilty.
Presiding judge, Justice Paul Madigan rejected the opinion of the three assessors and found Driti guilty of "inciting to mutiny." He said he found prosecution witness Tagicakibau "an honest and convincing witness" and Driti "evasive, divertive, petulant and ungracious ... he contradicted himself and gave evidence that was incapable of belief."
Specifically, the judge could not believe Driti knew nothing of any plans until Ratu Tevita Mara visited him in mid September 2010, even though, by his own admission, he was receiving official and unofficial intelligence reports on at least a weekly basis. He did not accept Driti's reason for not informing the PM and his Commander-in-Chief of plans to remove him or the threats to the A-G's life. And concluded that the case against Driti was overwhelming.
Reactions to the Judgement
Sharma's assessment is most important because of his professional status, his detailed knowledge of the case, and his everyday experiences dealing with the Fiji judiciary.
Perhaps even more telling, because no one could ever possibly accuse him of being pro-Bainimama, is that ABC's Bruce Hill, supports what Sharma had to say. Listen to this video. It is definitely worth your time.
But this is not what they NZ public will read. News releases here are dominated by Michael Field, a veteran NZ journalist whose blatant biases on the Bainimarama government have been exposed several times on this blog. It is impossible to avoid the judgement that Field is either so biased that he is blindly bigoted or that he has not done his homework. Either way, the NZ public deserve better from a supposedly informed and independent media.
This is what Field wrote on the Driti judgement:
The evidence heard last week suggests several of Fiji's colonels were also plotting to overthrow Bainimarama in 2010. But Madigan's unusual over-ruling of an assessor panel under-scores the heavy international legal criticism laid against Fiji's judiciary that it is not independent of the military regime."
Fortunately, Cameron Slater on his Whaleoil blog, offered a correction for the blog-reading NZ public.
Humorous as ever, Slater opens with Field, banned from Fiji, "interviewing his keyboard", before launching into "misleading information about legal processes in Fiji. ... Along with much of his article that doesn’t bear repeating it is so wrong. He clearly is clouded by his political leanings that he is actually prepared to deliberately mislead."
1. The assessor system is not the equivalent of a jury.
2. The evidence against Driti, that Field does not address, on the Incitement to Mutiny charge was overwhelming. The sedition charge was in the alternative but also compelling. In fact, sources in Fiji suggest that the defence lawyer had conceded facts that he probably should not have as he probably misunderstood the law. The elements of the offence were largely admitted into evidence without objection. This is what made the assessor’s opinion perverse. In other words, on the evidence and application of the law to the proven facts, the assessors should have given an opinion of guilty.
3. What does Field mean by a “directed” verdict? The Summing Up to the assessors was an accurate statement of the evidence and the law.
4. Why keep applying NZ laws to Fiji? It does not matter whether NZ or any other “mature” democracy has a law against sedition. The fact is Fiji does. Why we insist on applying the laws and attitudes of New Zealand to a sovereign nation on the basis of whether or not they had a coup is just ridiculous. We have free trade agreements with countries with much worse human rights records than Fiji. New Zealand’s reaction, in particular MFaT and the media, to Fiji is incongruent when compared the the treatment of other countries.
One last word: on Aziz
Driti claimed Brigadier General Mohammed Aziz was involved in the plot and inferred he was the prime instigator. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Christopher Pryde says he will not comment on the allegations levelled against Aziz at the trial.senior military officer, He said the right people to comment on this issue would be the police. RFMF Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Aziz is currently accompanying Defence Minister, Joketani Cokanasiga on an official visit to China.