4 Oct 2018

Hughes' documents illustrate Fiji coup moves

8:38 am on 4 October 2018

Just weeks before Fiji's 2006 coup, then military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama told the ailing president Ratu Josefa Iloilo that he intended to appoint himself president, documents reveal.

This is contained in a long confidential letter sent by the Fiji Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes to the New Zealand Police Commissioner Howard Broad on 28 November - just over a week before the coup.

The letter and other documents have been obtained by RNZ Pacific after Mr Hughes' death of cancer in Australia in August.

He was a central figure in efforts to stave off a coup and unsuccessfully lobbied New Zealand police to arrest Commodore Bainimarama under Section 117(e) of the Crimes Act 1961 of New Zealand.

"His arrest in New Zealand would demonstrate in Fiji that no-one is above the law. Failure to do this will reinforce that whoever controls the military can control the government", he argued.

Commodore Bainimarama was being investigated for sedition and treasonable conduct but in Fiji police could not get near him.

"He has openly defied the due process of the law by surrounding himself with heavily armed bodyguards of between 20 and 25 in number," he wrote.

"Any arrest of the Commander would have reasonably precipitated a violent reaction towards police, including the forceable release of the Commander," he noted.

According to Mr Hughes, the British High Commissioner to Fiji Roger Sykes also believed that arresting the commander in New Zealand was "the best option".

"He described it as 'cutting off the viper's head'".

In the letter, Mr Hughes also warned that the coup, which was rumoured for weeks as tension rose, was imminent.

"From reliable intelligence sources we know that the first phase will occur soon after his return [from New Zealand] , likely to be on or shortly after 4 December 2006," he wrote.

His prediction was accurate.

On 4 December, military forces fanned out across Suva, seizing ministerial vehicles and police armouries.

On 5 December, Commodore Bainimarama appointed himself president and the prime minister Laisenia Qarase was subsequently forced out of town.

Suva roadblocks after 2006 Fiji military coup

Suva roadblocks after 2006 Fiji military coup Photo: AFP

According to Mr Hughes' intelligence, the original coup plan was to unfold with the police commissioner being kidnapped by the military and be held to ransom for the government to 'throw in the towel'.

Writing 10 days before the coup, Mr Hughes noted that "this in itself is not a coup in the Commodore's way of thinking. It is a process to agree to his demands, clearing the way for fresh demands."

But Mr Hughes was already in Australia, after heeding warnings that he would face arrest.

"The prospect of being captured and detained in this facility by these people is not one which I look forward to," he wrote.

Former Fiji Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes died on Aug 28 2018

Former Fiji Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes died on Aug 28 2018 Photo: Supplied

His family had also already left Fiji.

"We were reliably informed, both through police sources and diplomatic channels, that the RFMF were exercising a kidnap team to take my family hostage."

At the end of November, he had accompanied Mr Qarase to New Zealand where talks were held involving Fiji's prime minister and Commodore Frank Bainimarama who had extended a private visit to Wellington.

The meeting at Government House in Wellington was held under the auspices of the New Zealand foreign minister Winston Peters.

He tried to persuade Commodore Bainimarama not to unseat Mr Qarase who refused to resign - as demanded by the military leader.

At the same Mr Hughes met his New Zealand counterpart Howard Broad.

Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry

Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry Photo: AFP

"I met with the Commissioner and the Deputy until after midnight in their offices, trying unsuccessfully to convince them to proceed with charges. Even though under NZ Law, it is the sole prerogative of the Commissioner to lay charges until the stage of indictment when the Crown Prosecutor takes over. The Foreign Minister does not have the authority to issue an undertaking not to prosecute. Mr Peters acted improperly in my view."

In his letter to Mr Broad, Mr Hughes wrote "with the greatest respect and the best intentions of the New Zealand Government, a mediated solution will not succeed unless all of the outcomes align perfectly with his (Commodore Bainimarama's) demands, including fresh demands to his increasingly growing list."

In his notes, Mr Hughes said "initially my relationship with the Commander was good. This deteriorated rapidly when he started preparing to overthrow the government."

Writing to Mr Broad, Mr Hughes warned that Commodore Bainimarama "simply cannot be trusted".

"In my assessment he is a cunning, self obsessed, stubborn, manipulative, divisive, ruthless individual with a short temper accompanied by a propensity to violence."

Mr Hughes argued that Commodore Bainimarama's support within the military was limited and arresting him in New Zealand would pose no major risk for New Zealanders in Fiji.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Photo: AFP (file)

"New Zealanders (and indeed Australians) are generally, almost universally, liked by Fijians. They admire our successes economically, educationally, technologically and most important to them, in Rugby. There is no latent hostility waiting for the opportunity to boil over."

Andrew Hughes said delegates of the Association of Christian Churches Forum came to see him, "praying for me to succeed in bringing Bainimarama under the rule of law. They referred to Bainimarama as being 'possessed by the Devil'."

In Suva, as Commodore Bainimarama seized power on 5 December, Ratu Josefa Iloilo remained silent.

Mr Hughes said "shadowy supporters" were to be appointed to key positions.

He expected the Labour leader Mahendra Chaudhry to become the prime minister and Ratu Epeli Ganilau to get internal affairs.

They did become ministers in the post-coup government but Mr Chaudhry got finance and Ratu Epeli defence.

Members of Fiji police and military forces.

Members of Fiji police and military forces. Photo: AFP

At the time of the coup, the prime ministership was given to Jone Senilagakali, a doctor without any prior political experience.

For a month, Commodore Bainimarama unsuccessfully tried to get anointed president by the appointing authority, the Great Council of Chiefs.

The chiefs however insisted that Ratu Josefa was still the duly appointed head of state.

So on 5 January 2007, Commodore Bainimarama reinstated Ratu Josefa as president and took over as prime minister.

On his reinstatement, Ratu Josefa made his first official comment about the events and approved the coup while urging Commodore Bainimarama to uphold the constitution.

no caption

AFP file photo Photo: AFP

After the court of appeal in 2009 had declared Commodore Bainimarama's regime illegal, Ratu Josefa abrogated the constitution.

All judges were sacked and martial law was declared.

Mr Hughes predicted such an outcome in 2006.

In October of that year, he had prepared a statement to all members of the Fiji police.

"If you are reading this Minute it will be because the Republic of Fiji Military Forces has taken control of government or a takeover by them is imminent. It is reasonable to believe that they will seek to abrogate the Constitution and enact Military rule."

In 2013, the Bainimarama regime brought in a new constitution which grants immunity to anyone involved in any of Fiji's coups.

Fiji constitution

Fiji constitution Photo: supplied

The Fiji government has been asked for comment.

In a comment to the blog Grubsheet six years ago, Mr Bainimarama labeled Mr Hughes a 'twit' for thinking of getting away with the arrest of a defence force chief in the Pacific.

He said the arrest attempt didn't surprise him and suggested Mr Hughes acted on Australia's instructions.