- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

SUVA, FIJI (AP) - The United States and the British Commonwealth expressed dismay Friday after Fiji’s president suspended the constitution of his troubled South Pacific country and fired the judges who declared its military government illegal.

The radical move by the titular head of state paves the way for the armed forces chief who seized power in 2006 to retain control despite a senior court’s ruling Thursday that his coup _ 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 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 British Commonwealth, a 53-nation body centered on Britain and its former colonies, also expressed concern at the “unwelcome developments” in a statement Friday.

In a national address Friday, Fiji President Ratu Josefa 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.”

He said he would appoint a new prime minister within days and hold elections no later than September 2014.

Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. have been pressing for the vote this year. Both New Zealand and Australia have also condemned the president’s move.

Iloilo’s declaration came a few hours after military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama, in his own national address, said he was stepping down as prime minister because of the court ruling that declared his government illegal.

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.

“It looks like a prepared statement by Bainimarama, delivered by Iloilo,” Rod Alley, a senior fellow at New Zealand’s Center for Strategic Studies, told The Associated Press. “This is extraordinary and doesn’t look good for Fiji.”

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.

Fiji remained calm late Friday, 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.

“You cannot have a country without a government,” he said. “The machinery of government must continue.”

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.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed for calm following the ruling and urged “full respect for human rights, the rule of law and the judicial process,” U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said. She added the U.N. is reviewing its role in mediating the crisis.

Bainimarama seized power in 2006 after months of bickering with Qarase, whom he accused of discriminating in favor of indigenous Fijians who made up his power base and against the large ethnic Indian minority.


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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