Fiji state prosecutor appeals former prime minister’s ‘lenient’ sentence

BenarNews staff
Fiji state prosecutor appeals former prime minister’s ‘lenient’ sentence Former Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama (center) reacts with his supporters as he leaves the Magistrates Court in Suva, March 28, 2024.
Leon Lord/AFP

Fiji’s public prosecutor has appealed what it says is an unreasonably lenient sentence for former strongman Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who had been found guilty of interfering in a police investigation.

Bainimarama, who held sway over Fiji for 16 years after seizing power in a 2006 coup, and his now suspended Police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho had faced trial for allegedly shutting down a police investigation into financial mismanagement at the University of the South Pacific. 

A Suva Magistrates Court judge on Thursday discharged Bainimarama, meaning that no conviction will be recorded for him despite a ruling earlier this month that he was guilty of obstructing justice while prime minister. The charge can be punished with up to five years in prison.

The sentence for Bainimarama and a fine and discharge for Qiliho are “manifestly lenient and in breach of sentencing principles, case laws and the tariff [punishment] set in other similar matters,” the office of the public prosecutor said in a statement.

Seini Puamau, the magistrates court judge, had originally found both men not guilty but her verdict was overturned earlier this month by Fiji’s acting chief justice, who ordered Puamau to sentence the pair.

Bainimarama’s years in power ended in December 2022 after his Fiji First Party dropped below 50% of the vote in national elections, allowing opposition parties to form a coalition government led by Sitiveni Rabuka – who is also a former coup leader.

A purge of Bainimarama appointees from important public positions followed the change in government along with a slew of investigations into alleged abuses of office and the removal of restrictions on the media.

However, Bainimarama still commands a significant following in Fiji – the second most populous Pacific island country with nearly 1 million people – while the initial enthusiasm for Rabuka’s coalition government has faded amid cost-of-living increases, slowing economic growth and scandals involving government ministers.

Jubilant supporters surrounded Bainimarama outside the court on Thursday. 

Puamau’s sentencing said Bainimarama’s offense had been trivial and had no victim. A prison sentence would have severe consequences for the 69-year-old’s health, she said. He had heart surgery in 2022 and also suffers from obstructive sleep apnea and nerve pain, according to evidence from his doctors.

“It seems to me that imprisonment would cause an egregiously high degree of hardship in that it will likely result in an incredibly diminished quality of life and potential death as a result of his history of heart trouble,” Puamau said.

The public prosecutor said the judge had considered irrelevant factors and made legal and factual errors in her findings, including that there were no aggravating factors against the two men and that the offending was only a technical breach with no victim.

A conviction for Bainimarama would prevent him from seeking election to Parliament for nearly a decade.

According to Fiji’s 2013 constitution, drafted under Bainimarama, candidates for Parliament must not have a conviction in the previous eight years for any offense that has a term of imprisonment of a year or more. Bainimarama also faces another trial after being charged with abuse of office in February.


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