Following years of internal political battles in Fiji which include military take-overs, coups, coups inside coups and constitutional restructure, the family of award-winning Fijian Pacific Islands businesswoman and former member of parliament (MP) Dr. Mere Samisoni has been warned by her lawyers she now faces a charge of conspiracy to overthrow the government by Fiji's military ruler.
The outspoken 74-year-old grandmother of eleven, would be one of the last to be prosecuted under a law in Fiji that is minutes from being discontinued in Fiji called the Public Emergency Regulation (PER) law which Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, announced on the first day of 2012 would be scrapped in only a few more days.
Dr. Mere Samisoni was a member of parliament under former Prime Minister of Fiji Laisenia Qarase. Both were removed from office when Qarase was deposed through a country-wide militarized ‘take-over' process.
Frank Bainimarama's history as Fiji's current military leader is controversial. In 2009 he was described as the “Coconut Dictator“ by The Economist magazine. Bainimariama took over the political structure of Fiji officially by coup in 2006 and a ‘coup within a coup' in 2009. He is also a self described “monarchist” in a country riddled by political instability and continuing media restrictions.
Held in the Central Police Station over the New Year weekend holiday when many offices are closed, including the office for human rights advocates Amnesty International, who has monitored Fiji's human rights violations history since the country's coup began, Samisoni was initially denied access to any legal defense.
“Since the December 2006 coup d'etat and the appointment of a military-controlled government, with Bainimarama as both commander of the army and prime minister, the military had been encroaching on Fiji's political and administrative system, including on the independence of judges and lawyers. In the process, they violated a wide array of human rights,” said a 2009 human rights violations report, “Fiji Paradise Lost,” by Amnesty International. “With the April 2009 abrogation of the constitution and the declaration of emergency, Commodore Frank Bainimarama and the military council consolidated their virtually absolute power in Fiji,” continued Amnesty International.
Dr. Samisoni was arrested along with Mataiasi Ragigia, Apete Vereti and Semisi Lasike on Friday December 30 under the PER law which permits security forces to hold someone without any charge for 7 days and use whatever force against them that is deemed necessary. The PER law decree also bans certain topics and prevents journalists from reporting using media transparency.
In 2009 Bainimariama's military rule caused censorship and intimidation of journalists.
“This censorship has led to a distortion of the news,” continued Amnesty International. “In an incident involving the European Union (EU), a senior diplomat told Amnesty International that the European Union office in Suva had to demand that a local media outlet correct the news item that it ran saying that the EU is supportive of the Fijian government and that it will give funds to Fiji. The EU statement had in fact announced that no funds would be made available to Fiji. Officials ordered newsrooms to remove such items, prompting a senior journalist to observe that the authorities do not want the public to “get ideas” about resistance or uprising.”
Although she has now been released on bond, conditions for Samisoni under arrest were not good. Her attorney from New Zealand, Peter Williams QC, did convey that Samisoni “has been kept in terrible conditions in jail and has been interrogated every day.”
Mere Samisoni is a Fijian entrepreneur who founded the popular 30-store Fiji bakery chain called ‘Hot Bread Kitchen' before turning to politics and public service. Her daughter Vanessa Charters, speaking on behalf of the family, said they had been told by authorities that Samisoni had allegedly made a confession.
“At this moment in time we aren't sure what this alleged confession relates to but we do know for a fact, we have had it independently verified, that Mum's lawyer was not present at the time of this so-called confession,” outlined Charters. “In any normal court of law this ‘so-called' confession should not be worth the paper it is written on.”
Fiji's military leadership has had an increasing and controlling grip on the country as severe economic hardship has hit the country with GDP growth at the end of 2011 less than one percent and inflation at 9 percent.
According to the Fiji government's own statistics more than one third of the country now lives below the poverty line. In rural areas two out of every five people survive on less than 5 Fiji dollars a day. In only two years Fiji's global rank (World Bank reports) has also slipped dramatically from 25th place to 77th in “Ease of Doing Business.” This ranking is made to give data for 183 countries.
Last month a controversial copper mine project in the interior province of Namosi – said to be worth a F$1 billion – prompted widespread displays of public anger from many local villagers despite the ban on unsanctioned protests under PER legal sanctions.
Samisoni is due back in Fiji's court to face charges of conspiracy against the government on January 25. On her release she has been placed under police watch. She has also been asked by the court to surrender any travel documents she may have as well as report each day to the nearest police station.
Dr. Samisoni is also under partial house arrest and currently not allowed to leave her home from 7pm-6am daily.
“I hope the International community will continue to pressure through truth and democratic rights of the people of Fiji,” said Dr. Samisoni in a public advocacy statement she made in 2009.