Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What is Commodore Bainimarama Running Away From?

TIME South Pacific magazine - Dec 18 2006 Issue

For months before he appointed himself President and put Fiji's elected leaders under house arrest, military commander Frank Bainimarama had been threatening to stage a coup unless Laisenia Qarase's government abandoned plans to pardon those behind the abortive coup and mutiny of 2000. But some in Fiji say Bainimarama, who during the mutiny narrowly escaped assassination by rebel troops, has another motive: ending a police probe into the killings of four soldiers from the mutinous special- forces unit.

"It's cold-blooded murder," says Ana Kalounivale, "and that's what Bainimarama is running away from." The 37-year-old widow says Bainimarama must bear some responsibility for the bashing deaths of her husband and three other special-forces soldiers. If he did not order or know about the killings at the time, she believes, then he failed to properly investigate them afterward. "Now we don't know if we will ever have justice," says the mother of four.

The commander has repeatedly denied any responsibility for the deaths of Selesitano Kalounivale, Jone Davui, Epineri Bainimoli and Lagani Rokowaqa." I never gave any orders to kill," he said in 2003. However, in the weeks before the coup Bainimarama was under increasing pressure over the murders. Police probes and court actions by victims' families and surviving soldiers could have seen him suspended, forced to give evidence about the killings, and potentially facing charges and a six-figure compensation claim against the Fiji Military Force. During the mutiny by members of the elite Counter-Revolutionary Warfare unit, three loyalist soldiers were shot and-in an experience which some officers say has haunted him ever since-Bainimarama was hunted by armed rebels through a jungle-choked valley behind Suva's Queen Elizabeth Barracks. After the barracks were retaken, loyalists rounded up CRW soldiers regardless of whether they had taken part in the mutiny. Selesitino and the other soldiers allegedly fell victim to a violent paroxysm of revenge.

Among Bainimarama's increasingly peremptory demands to the Qarase government were the shutting down of the police investigation into the murders and the removal of Fiji's Police Commissioner, Andrew Hughes. The day after the coup, Dec. 7, Bainimarama sacked Hughes, who had already left the country after death threats to his family, and appointed Army intelligence chief Jim Koroi as acting Police Commissioner. Next day his soldiers took in for questioning six former CRW soldiers, alleging that they could foment civil unrest.

In the past year, Bainimarama and the military had been fighting four separate legal actions. Three were lodged by former CRW soldiers who survived beatings in 2000. The fourth was a compensation claim by Ana Kalounivale, who successfully sued the Commander and the government for worker's compensation over her husband's death but has yet to receive any money. In a hearing last April, the court was told that after he was first picked up, Selesitino had a 30-minute meeting with Bainimarama and was then taken to the local police station on the Commander's orders. He was later taken from the station by four or five soldiers. Acquaintances of his told the court they were working in a building next door to the police station when soldiers arrived with Selesitino. They said they heard him crying out for help as he was driven away in a military vehicle. According to the judgment of Magistrate Ajmal Gulab Khan, "He was on the floor of the van and bystanders could hear swearing, hitting with rifle butts and kicking at the back of the tray." Around midnight, his hideously injured body was delivered to the morgue. Magistrate Khan found that "the assaulting soldiers may have exceeded in the scope of their duty by assaulting the deceased, but they acted as soldiers of FMF and were responsible for their actions in the general scope of their duties." He awarded Ana Kalounivale $24,000, but she says the military is appealing the judgment. But it has never explained where the soldiers took Selesitino or why he was singled out. But documents lodged in support of civil lawsuits by the three CRW soldiers who survived beatings give a chilling insight into what might have happened. The soldiers "seized me at gunpoint and handcuffed my hands behind my back," said Sergeant Viliame Lotawa of the night he was taken from the police station. "I was punched, kicked and beaten with blunt objects such as rifle butts and iron rods. I was beaten all the way to [Queen Elizabeth Barracks]." Lotawa says his attackers included a former Fijian rugby international, Sergeant Jack Komaitai. Komaitai told Time last week there was no truth to the allegation. Another survivor, Metuisela Railumu, told the court he was taken by soldiers to a shooting range and "beaten with wood and iron rods all over my body." The case of the third survivor, Barbados Mills, is due to go to trial early in 2007.

All three suits include Bainimarama as a defendant, charging that as military commander he was responsible for the actions of his troops. Police have interviewed 12 soldiers about the bashings, but the military has reportedly insisted that a senior officer attend all interviews; in at least one case, the officer prematurely terminated the interview. When Time put Lotawa's allegations to Bainimarama's spokesman, Major Neumi Leweni, he said, "Who told you that?" He has since refused to speak to the magazine.

Police have told Time the military conducted its own investigation, under the supervision of then officer Jack Koroi, Bainimarama's hand- picked new acting Police Commissioner. None of the alleged perpetrators named by Lotawa and his fellow survivors has faced any military trial or disciplinary hearing. Police are unhappy about Koroi's appointment. Says one officer, who asked to remain anonymous: "Koroi knows what to look for in the files. He's a former Criminal Investigations Department officer and he was the point of contact up at the barracks for people wanting to interview soldiers in the past." Contacted by Time last week, Koroi said of the police investigation,"[The suspects in the bashings] have all been questioned but they have decided to stay mute. There is a lot of difficulties with this. I have to see the file before I comment."

Since leaving Fiji, sacked Police Commissioner Hughes, an Australian, has said one reason for the coup was self-preservation on Bainimarama's part. "He's been resistant to the investigation into the murder of the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare soldiers in 2000," Hughes told ABC News. "We believe he has some questions to answer in that regard himself." Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer shares Hughes' view. "I think, in particular, Commodore Bainimarama is deeply concerned about investigations by the police into the Fiji military itself," he told ABC Radio. A senior Fiji police officer tells Time he and his colleagues have new evidence suggesting some of the "top [military] brass ordered the actions." Now, he says, they are bracing for the day when soldiers march in and remove their files. But "We've got copies," he says. "We won't give up." Ana Kalounivale may get justice yet.

1 comment:

  1. What a sad state of affairs ! Does this sort of information ever reach the public of Fiji ? It seems to me most of the population are either kept in the dark or have justified the murders of the crw soldiers in 2000 . My understanding of it was that one of the soldiers wasn't even in the area the night the original soldiers were killed in the barracks ! Fijians claim to be predominantly Christian and it says in the bible the truth shall set you free ! So why haven't you who know , come out and told the truth . Your society needs to heel , from the inside 1st.