The Law Society of England and Wales has warned that the prosecution and sentencing of a Fijian NGO and its director could signal the “death of free speech” in the Pacific island state.
Rev Akuila Yabaki, director of the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum on the island, was given a suspended three-month jail term and fined 20,000 Fijian dollars (about £7,000) for quoting a Law Society Charity report on the rule of law in Fiji.
The charge of contempt of court after the NGO produced a summary of the report in its newsletter, maintaining that there was no rule of law or freedom of expression in Fiji and that the independence of its judiciary could not be relied upon.
The report was written by Nigel Dodds (pictured), chair of the Law Society Charity, following a private research trip to Fiji in November 2011. Previous legal delegations, including an International Bar Association delegation, had been refused entry to the country.
Finding both the forum and Rev Yabaki guilty in May, Judge William Calanchini described Mr Dodds’s conclusion that ‘the impartiality of the judiciary cannot be relied upon’, as “contemptuous words” and said their repetition “cannot be said to be fair comment”.
In March Fiji’s attorney general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum described the report as a “joke” and launched a personal attack on Nigel Dodds, declaring that he had “no integrity”.
Nicholas Fluck, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said in a statement on 13 August: “The sentencing of Rev Yabaki shows that the oppressive regime in Fiji is prepared to go to any lengths to limit free speech.
“Is free speech dead in Fiji? The only way it could be restored in a meaningful way would be to reinstate proper respect for the rule of law and a genuinely independent judiciary.”
Fiji has been ruled by an ‘interim’ Prime Minister since a coup in 2006 and is currently suspended from the Commonwealth.