- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

SUVA, FIJI (AP) - Fiji’s armed forces chief returned to power as this troubled country’s prime minister on Saturday, a day after the president suspended the constitution and fired the judges who had declared the military leader’s government illegal.

President Ratu Josefa Iloilo also declared a 30-day state of emergency, limiting freedom of speech, expanding police powers and curbing media reporting.

The radical moves ensured that Commodore Frank Bainimarama retains control over this South Pacific country despite a court ruling Thursday that the 2006 coup in which he seized power _ and therefore his government _ was unlawful.

The turmoil marks the latest chapter in a long-running political crisis in the once idyllic country of 800,000 people that has become increasingly unstable and poor after four coups in the past 20 years.

The changes have drawn international condemnation with the United States calling for a return to democracy.

In a national address Friday, Iloilo announced he had abrogated the constitution and revoked all judicial appointments, leaving him to rule by decree as part of what he called “the new order.”

Observers said the announcement by the aged and ailing Iloilo had the stamp of Bainimarama, and that the military commander would likely be reappointed as prime minister.

But shortly after being sworn in by Iloilo, Bainimarama maintained Saturday he had not advised Iloilo to overturn the country’s constitution.

The emergency decree allows the government to stop any broadcast or publication that it deems “could cause disorder.” Government “information officers” were posted in local newsrooms with whom journalists could “consult” on news material prior to publication.

Fiji remained calm Saturday, with police checkpoints on key roads the only visible sign of the government crisis.

Military spokesman Maj. Neumi Leweni said troops would only assist police to maintain law and order “when the need arises.”

Iloilo said in his address that he had the support of the armed forces, and that he was forced into the action he had taken because Thursday’s Court of Appeal decision created a power vacuum in the country. Under Fiji’s constitution, the president is head of state but has a mostly ceremonial role, with governing power held by the elected prime minister and Cabinet.

A three-judge Court of Appeal panel upheld a challenge to Bainimarama’s rule by ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and urged Iloilo to replace the military government with an interim administration until elections could be held. The panel members were among the judges fired Friday.

“The United States is deeply disappointed by the collapse of Fiji’s political dialogue process and the abrogation of Fiji’s constitution, which we see as movement away from the goal of returning Fiji to democratic governance and its formerly leading role in the Pacific,” State Department spokesman Richard Aker said in a statement.

The secretary-general of the Commonwealth, a 53-nation body that includes Britain and many of its former colonies, also expressed concern at the “unwelcome developments” in a statement Friday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement of Iloilo’s moves that he “strongly deplores these steps and calls for urgent action towards their reversal and the restoration of a legitimate government and constitutional order” in Fiji.

___

Associated Press writers Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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