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Fiji Judge: Interim Gov’t Illegal

November 15, 2000

SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ A Fiji High Court judge ruled Wednesday that the country’s 1997 constitution, scrapped by the military after a May 19 coup, remains in force.

The military-installed interim government that has run Fiji since the coup has no constitutional foundation, Justice Tony Gates ruled. He did not order the reinstatement of the previous government but said Parliament should be recalled to discuss the future.

The interim government quickly rejected the ruling, with Interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase saying his administration would remain in power and appeal Gates’ decision. The lengthy appeals process is unlikely to be completed before a scheduled parliament election in March 2002, meaning Wednesday’s court ruling may have virtually no effect.

``This decision offers a glimmer of hope _ I wouldn’t put it any higher than that,″ said Dr. George Williams, a constitutional lawyer based at the Australian National University.

There was no immediate reaction from Mahendra Chaudhry, the democratically elected prime minister toppled in the coup.

On May 19, failed businessman George Speight led a group of gunmen into parliament and took Chaudhry and members of his Labor-led coalition government hostage.

The coup came a year after Chaudhry’s victory in a democratic general election, the first under the 1997 constitution. Chaudhry was the first prime minister from Fiji’s ethnic Indian minority, and Speight said his coup was aimed at restoring power to indigenous Fijians.

Speight released the last of his hostages after a 56-day standoff. Qarase’s government has since guaranteed that only indigenous Fijians will be allowed to hold the nation’s top political jobs in the future.

Speight and his key supporters were arrested after the standoff and are in custody awaiting trial, likely next year, on treason charges that carry the death penalty.

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