4 Jun 2016

Fiji MP's suspension stirs outrage and support

6:41 pm on 4 June 2016
The National Federation Party MP Tupou Draunidalo.

The National Federation Party MP Tupou Draunidalo. Photo: RNZ / Sally Round

The leader of Fiji's opposition National Federation Party says the suspension of one his MPs until the next election is extreme, unwarranted, and a gross abuse of a government majority.

On Friday, parliament voted to suspend Tupou Draunidalo for the rest of the parliamentary term by 28 votes to 16.

The vote followed a recommendation by the Parliamentary Privileges Committee - which is made up of four government MPs - that Ms Draunidalo be suspended.

That followed a cross-floor shouting match on Thursday, when Ms Draunidalo apparently called the education minister, Mahendra Reddy, an "idiot" and a "fool" while responding to comments deriding opposition members.

In the breakdown of parliamentary decorum, Ms Draunidalo insisted that Dr Reddy had called the opposition "dumb natives," something which the Privileges Committee, in a report, said did not happen.

The opposition on Friday walked out of parliament in protest at Ms Draunidalo's suspension, which will last until the next election, which is scheduled for 2018.

National Federation Party leader Biman Prasad on Saturday said suspending an MP for two years for such an offence was ridiculous and without precedent.

"The penalty, the suspension, for the rest of the parliament's term is extreme and harsh, unwarranted, and uncalled for in a parliamentary democracy such as ours," said Dr Prasad.

"Obviously the decision by four Fiji First members on the Privileges Committee to provide that kind of sanction has been extremely harsh."

The leader of the Fiji National Federation Party, Biman Prasad.

The leader of the Fiji National Federation Party, Biman Prasad. Photo: RNZ / Sally Round

Dr Prasad said the party was weighing up its options, which could include legal action.

But Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said he strongly supported the decision to suspend Ms Draunidalo for what he said were "offensive" comments against Dr Reddy.

Mr Bainimarama accused Ms Draunidalo of abandoning rational debate in the pursuit of an element of ethnic prejudice.

"There are some who cannot help but see our progress and development through the lens of ethnicity," Mr Bainimarama said in a statement.

"Those individuals who cannot let go of the politics of division and who, at every turn, use divisive politics for their own cheap political gain."

But the international human rights organisation, Amnesty International, said the incident instead highlighted the government's continued hostility towards any kind of criticism, and called on parliament to overturn Ms Draunidalo's suspension.

In a statement, the NGO's director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rafendi Djamin said Ms Draunidalo was merely exercising her right to freedom of expression, and the punishment was unwarranted.

"Unless this suspension is immediately reversed, the Fijian authorities are proving they are intent on silencing critical voices," he said.

"If Fiji is serious about its bid for the UN Human Rights Council, they must demonstrate they are serious about upholding human rights at home," said Mr Djamin.

"Letting Draunidalo take up her rightful place in parliament, with all due protections for her right to freedom of expression, will be an important first step."