- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

SUVA, FIJI (AP) - Fiji’s president returned the country to military rule Saturday and declared a state of emergency in another tumultuous chapter in the South Pacific nation’s fall from democracy.

President Ratu Josefa Iloilo swore in armed forces chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama and his associates two days after a senior court ruled their government was illegal because it came to power in a 2006 coup.

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

Fiji remained calm Saturday, with police checkpoints on key roads the only visible sign of the government crisis. The military said it would take to the streets to back up police if necessary.

The turmoil is the latest 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 drew international condemnation and calls for a return to democracy.

Simon Crean, the acting foreign minister of Australia, which has led international pressure on Bainimarama for the past two years, said Iloilo had trashed the rule of law in Fiji.

“All the president has done is tear up the constitution on which he claimed to have made those appointments,” Crean told reporters in Melbourne, Australia. “So clearly he is acting in defiance of the law.”

Australia has renewed travel warnings to its citizens to avoid Fiji and stay away from crowds because of the possibility of unrest.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Aker said Washington was “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.”

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.”

Iloilo swore in Bainimarama as prime minister at a ceremony at his official residence. He later reappointed the nine-member Cabinet that had held power in Bainimarama’s government before the court ruling.

He also announced greater security powers for police and restricted press freedom in an emergency decree that 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.

The moves came a day after Iloilo abrogated the constitution and revoked all judicial appointments as part of what he called “the new order.” He said he would appoint an interim government that would arrange elections to restore democracy within five years.

Bainimarama has promised for two years to restore democracy through elections but insists he will rewrite the constitution and electoral laws first _ a process that could take years. He has excluded political opponents from discussions on the constitutional reforms.

In a television address later Saturday, Bainimarama restated his intention to remove the race-based voting system that he claims favors indigenous Fijians. He said Fiji needs to “embrace” cultural diversity “while remembering we’re all Fijians and equal citizens.”

The political changes mean the country will have “a clean slate” and a “new beginning” so it can “focus on a better Fiji, a fair, just Fiji,” he said.

Bainimarama said he had advised the president to reappoint the previous Cabinet to help fast-track political reforms so elections could be held by September 2014.

Regional powers Australia and New Zealand, the European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions on Fiji because of the coup.

Iloilo said he was forced into the action he had taken because the 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.

The Court of Appeal 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.

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