12 Nov 2013

Arrests over luncheon protest during Fiji's budget day labelled 'juvenile'

5:33 pm on 12 November 2013

The arrest of a group of budget day protestors in Fiji has been slammed as unconstitutional and a juvenile attempt to curb peaceful protest.

The 14 women and young people had been having a meal near the Fiji Revenue Customs Authority building, wearing t-shirts calling on the government to make the budget public, when they were arrested by police.

The police say the group were held for routine questioning and were all released by Friday evening.

Amelia Langford filed this report:

The police in Fiji are defending their decision to arrest the protesters, saying it was not unconstitutional. A police spokesperson, Ana Naisoro, says the police can arrest and question people over their intentions under the Public Order Decree.

"ANA NAISORO: It's just because what was stated on the t-shirt and we just wanted to find more as to the timing and the actual intent of meeting and gathering in such as place and also calling on the Government in such to make the budget public."

Ana Naisoro says investigations are continuing, but no charges have been laid at this stage. A constitutional lawyer, and former head of Fiji's Human Rights Commission, says police were within their rights as the group did not have a permit as required under the Public Order Decree. But Shaista Shameem, who now lives in Auckland, says the police actions probably backfired.

SHAISTA SHAMEEM: It just seems to me really juvenile to do something like that because I mean the whole idea about protest is that you could sit down and as far as these young people were concerned they were protesting peacefully and had the Government just ignored them there would not have been such international drama now associated with this particular event.

Shaista Shameem says although the constitution allows for public assembly, there are limitations to that. But Dr Shameem also says it is common for authoritarian regimes to wield the stick.

SHAISTA SHAMEEM: I don't think necessarily anyone is justified to do that for a peaceful protest, you know, the law is there but the law can be applied with discretion and I think in this particular case the police had become just a little too heavy-handed.

The executive director of the Fiji Women's Rights Movement, Virisila Buadromo, says the group wasn't protesting and it was a peaceful sit-in.

VIRISILA BUADROMO: It was just a group of individuals having brunch and therefore they didn't need a permit. If they are saying that any group of people who are sitting around would need a permit then I mean that is completely ridiculous.

Virisila Buadromo says the police should be focussing on more important matters and not wasting resources.

VIRISILA BUADROMO: In terms of the number police officers that were involved to round up 14 individuals to take them to the police station and question them, I mean, this could have been time spent... These policemen could have been out catching real criminals - criminals who are actually committing crimes.

Virisila Buadromo says the group were simply exercising their rights and that is covered by the state's constitution.