Can the Fiji government’s sensitivities be exploited?

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When it comes to the topic of their legality, dictators are a surprisingly needy bunch, and Fiji’s current rulers are no exception. Following the Gazette’s report on the rule of law (or lack thereof) in Fiji , its attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, and director of public prosecutions, New Zealander Christopher Pryde, have combined shrill, if imprecise, denial with wide-eyed innocence.

It’s worth unpicking some of the points made.

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The report, written by Law Society Charity chair Nigel Dodds, was based on his covert visit to interview numerous members of Fiji’s legal profession. It highlighted the recruitment of foreign lawyers to the judiciary and positions in the justice systems on short-term contracts, including lawyers from Sri Lanka. This clearly hit a nerve.

The attorney general at first flatly denied this (‘there are none’ he told the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, even though their names are a matter of public record). Pryde then changed tack, labeling Dodds a ‘racist’ for criticising the appointments.

And the report was critical of the government’s decision to seize total control of admission and practice in the legal profession from the Law Society (issuing practising certificates and the equivalent of CPD points). Neither Pryde nor Sayed-Khaiyum address that point directly, though other establishment legal figures have in private correspondence to the Gazette. The pretext for seizing control of the professional body’s regulatory functions was that handling complaints against lawyers and the efficient issue of practising certificates needed improvement.

In the report Dodds notes that the Law Society needed resources and outside help to overcome problems here - but that is rather different to arguing that the legal profession would benefit from being directly run by a government department that sits below a dictatorship.

Two other concerns not yet addressed by Fiji are the cabinet directive preventing the instruction of specific law firms by state bodies, and the practice direction preventing any court from hearing a legal case against the government. Having branded Dodds a ‘racist’ (Pryde), and ‘a joke’ with ‘no integrity’ (Sayed-Khaiyum), Pryde issued an invitation to the charity, via the media, to make a return visit and interview senior judicial and departmental figures.

If delegations with full access are now to be allowed in, that’s a significant success for Dodds and the Law Society Charity.

A previous attempt to enter the country openly had met with failure. The interim regime (‘interim’ since a 2006 coup brought Commodore Frank Bainimarama to power, allegedly at his third attempt) turned down a request in 2009 from the International Bar Association to send a delegation to investigate the state of things. (As a comparator, even Robert Mugabe lets the IBA in to conduct interviews and discuss their concerns.)

Hence the covert nature of Dodds’ original trip.

Fiji’s ‘interim’ government is attempting some tricky footwork at the moment. Currently suspended from the Commonwealth, the government is trying to move towards a position of greater legitimacy - without giving up the ‘benefits’ of military rule.

So martial law just ended, though the restrictions and powers that have replaced martial law have been criticised as equally - on some counts more - repressive. There is now a commitment to hold elections by September 2014, though the new year and the ‘lifting’ of martial law coincided with the arrest and detention of political opponents for alleged corruption.

It may seem odd that military ogre types and their appointees also crave legitimacy. But it’s actually pretty common. Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, no mean lawyer himself, brought in and maintained martial law in elegantly drafted legalese. And Mugabe, Lord Falconer told me after his 1999 visit to Zimbabwe for the IBA, has always been hyper-sensitive to accusations around ‘legality’ and the rule of law.

The list could go on some way. The question here is not whether dictators are needy people, but whether or not that craving for legitimacy can be used to good effect in a country like Fiji. Let us hope it can.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor

Follow Eduardo on Twitter

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