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Fiji's vice president convicted in coup
Updated: 2004-08-05 13:51

Fiji's High Court convicted the vice president Thursday for his role in a 2000 nationalist coup that ousted the first ethnic Indian prime minister in this South Pacific islands nation.

Vice President Jope Seniloli was accused of backing the two-month coup led by ethnic Fijian nationalist George Speight, and briefly serving as the country's president. Seniloli was convicted of administering an illegal oath of office for swearing in Speight and a group of ministers in the rebel government.

Fiji Vice President Jope Seniloli, pictured, has appealed to his supporters to remain calm and accept the verdict expected in his trial over the 2000 coup on the Pacific island. [AFP/File]
The four other defendants, Parliament's Deputy Speaker Rakuita Vakalalabure and three businessmen, were convicted on the same charge.

Judge Nazhat Shamem ordered them detained pending sentencing Friday.

The defendants claimed they were coerced into participating in the coup by Speight, who said he wanted to restore power to indigenous Fijians.

But prosecutors said they weren't forced and that Seniloli knew about the coup before it took place on May 19, 2000.

There was no immediate reaction to the verdicts from the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. Fiji security forces were on high alert around the capital, Suva, after warning that no protests would be tolerated in the racially divided country.

Seniloli had been a minor provincial administrator and traditional chief in Tailevu province, where Speight and other key coup plotters hailed. He was sworn in as president after Speight overthrew Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry — an ethnic Indian — but only held the role briefly.

Chaudhry's ethnic-Indian dominated Cabinet and lawmakers from his Fiji Labor Party were held hostage for 56 days by the coup plotters before they gave in to military authorities.

Sports Minister Sireli Leweniqila, the sixth man tried on the charge, was acquitted by the five-member jury.

The conviction means Seniloli loses his post as vice president. The deputy speaker also is expected to lose his parliamentary posts if he is imprisoned.

The maximum sentence for the crime is life imprisonment, which in Fiji normally means 10 years. Prosecutors have told the court they will seek a minimum of no less than seven years to life for the five convicted men.

Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes, an Australian appointed to the post last year, said last week that any acts aimed at destabilizing the country in the wake of the trial would not be tolerated.

"There will be no repeat of the 2000 mayhem," Hughes told local media in reference to violent riots and looting that severely damaged much of central Suva.

"We are not going to tolerate any such acts by anyone," he said.

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