6 Sep 2013

Fiji police arrest 14 protestors outside Government House

5:17 pm on 6 September 2013

The new Fiji constitution, drawn up by the Bainimarama government after it threw out a draft by its own constitution commission, is now in force.

The president Ratu Epeli Nailatikau gave his assent yesterday afternoon.

Earlier yesterday 14 people were briefly arrested during a protest over constitution outside Fiji's Government House in Suva where the assent was to take place.

The group was freed after a couple of hours but police say there will be an investigation into the protest.

Mary Baines reports:

The executive director of the Fiji Women's Rights Movement, Virisila Buadromo, says three of her staff were taken into police custody and had their phones seized. She says they were protesting to say the constitution is unjust and does not reflect the views of 7,000 people who made submissions on an earlier draft.

"VIRISILA BUADROMO: It was a silent, peaceful protest outside the president's residence. Police turned up and said they had to put away their placard, and they refused, and they were told to get into the police vehicle and taken up to the police station where they are currently being held in custody."

Ms Buadromo says lawyers negotiated their release. The Fiji Police media liaison, Ana Naisoro, says the group was arrested for protesting in public without a permit.

ANA NAISORO: We can confirm a group of people can be were taken in early this morning for allegedly standing in a public place without a permit. As we speak, they have all been released pending investigation and that's all we can say at this stage.

Mick Beddoes of Sodelpa and other members of the United Front for a Democratic Fiji presented a letter to the President to express their opposition to the constitution. Mr Beddoes says the letter calls on the on the resident not to assent to the Constitution, but instead appoint a caretaker government that will take over until elections promised for next year. He says they couldn't deliver the letter at the front of the building.

MICK BEDDOES: We went to the back and we met with the secretary to the president. I read out the covering letter and the contents of our resolution which he duly signed as receiving. So we managed to receive what we wanted to do and file our objections to what is going to take place later today.

The attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, said there was good feedback from people and the international community on the document. But the executive director of Amnesty International in New Zealand, Grant Baylon, says the constitution will uphold restrictions on freedom of speech and give broad powers to detain people without trial.

GRANT BAYLON: Really the foundations of democracy are around respect for basic human rights, a free press, the rule of law, freedom of expression - those things are essential and they need to be in Fiji's constitution for it to get back to a good place with its democracy.

The Citizens Constitutional Forum, of CFF, says it did not join the protest. But its CEO, the Reverend Akuila Yabaki, says CFF has engaged constitutional experts to analyse the constitution and develop a 30-page handbook for those who want to debate its provisions.

AKUILA YABAKI: This is a final constitution. So the best and more permanent way of building a critical view of it, and the possibility of any change, is to be able to have a scrutiny of this constitution. That's why we are doing it - a kind of handbook for those who want to continue to work on it in a positive way. Not just to rubbish it, but to have an intelligent engagement.

Reverend Yabaki says CFF will continue to protest against the constitution by openly scrutinising its provisions.