27 Jul 2021

Former Fiji prime minister detained by police over Land Bill comments

9:38 am on 27 July 2021

Former Prime Minister and Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry is the latest politician to be detained by police over comments he made about the Land Bill.

Mahendra Chaudhry.

Mahendra Chaudhry. Photo: Supplied/Fiji Labour Party

Police confirmed Chaudhry was taken in for questioning on Monday afternoon in relation to comments he made about a Bill.

Acting Commissioner of Police Rusiate Tudravu is yet to confirm whether opposition SODELPA member Niko Nawaikula has also been detained.

Nawaikula's parliamentary seat was made vacant last Friday by the Speaker and the Supervisor of Elections.

In a letter to Nawaikula, Speaker of Parliament Ratu Epeli Nailatikau informed him of the decision.

The letter stated that Ratu Epeli had received notice from the Supervisor of Elections on 20 July to inform Parliament that Nawaikula's name had been removed from the National Register of Voters pursuant to Section 12 of the Electoral (Registrations of Voters ) Act 2012.

The letter from Elections Supervisor Mohammed Saneem continued to state that under the Constitution, the seat of a member of Parliament became vacant if the member ceased to have the right to be nominated as a candidate for election to the house.

It further said that the Constitution provided that a person may be a candidate for election to Parliament if the person was on the Register.

This meant that a seat in Parliament would become vacant if an MP who held the seat ceased to have the right to be nominated as a candidate to Parliament and the MP ceased to have that right when he or she is inter alia, not registered on the Register.

Nawaikula has seven days to make an application to the Court of Disputed Returns should he seek to question or challenge the validity of his seat becoming vacant.

Last month, Nawaikula was referred to the country's anti-corruption commission for investigation by the Fijian Elections Office over claims the SODELPA member provided a false declaration to a registration official when he made an application to replace his VoterCard on 22 June 2017.

The Elections Office said the matter was reported in light of Nawaikula's own admission in Parliament that his name was not correct on the voter card.

While making his contribution on the Bill to Amend the Electoral Registration of Voters Act which was passed in parliament in June, Nawaikula had said that the name he was known which is Niko Nawaikula is not the name on his birth certificate.

SODELPA member Ratu Isoa Tikoca is expected to replace Nawaikula in Parliament.

Niko Nawaikula.

Niko Nawaikula. Photo: Supplied

The escalating tension is over the government's plan, put forward by the Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, to amend the iTaukei Land Trust Act.

The law currently states that anyone leasing land, or wanting to make changes, has to go through the iTaukei Land Trust Board which was set up to protect indigenous landowners' rights.

But critics claim the amendment removes that protection for the landowners. This has sparked widespread protest from politicians, public figures and many in the community amidst threats of violence.

Social media posts have called on Fijians to rally at the Parliament complex with weapons to fight members of the Muslim communities - a reference to Sayed-Khaiyum's religion.

Meanwhile, three people have been arrested in relation to the burning of a shop and the compound of a mosque in Fiji.

Police said they had received two reports about an alleged arson attack on both the store and the Macuata Muslim League Mosque in Naqara on Taveuni on Sunday.

Claims on social media have also linked the attacks to the land row but police have yet to confirm this.

Our correspondent in Fiji, Lice Movono, told Morning Report the situation there is uncertain.

"In Taveuni to the north of Fiji, there had been violence overnight. Reports of the burning of a mosque and supermarkets owned by a Muslim gentleman and so it's a precarious situation," Movono said.

Rusiate Tudravu.

Rusiate Tudravu. Photo: Facebook/Fiji Police

Meanwhile, police said they would also look into concerns of burglary in the area over the past months during curfew hours, one of which was the Courts Fiji Ltd shop.

Police have warned that anyone who utters social media comments with the aim of inciting civil unrest will be investigated.

Tudravu said the warning came after the force noticed an increase in the number of hate speeches and threats of unrest made on social media regarding the proposed Bill.

He said Fijians should not allow their emotions to cloud their judgment when making comments on the proposed Bill.

"We acknowledge that land is a sensitive subject for many Fijians, however, we reiterate that freedom of speech and expression comes with responsibilities," Tudravu said.

"People need to be cautious about comments that are aimed at inciting civil unrest as it will be investigated.

"We plead with Fijians to allow the process of the tabling of the Bill to be carried out."

Tudravu said there were legal channels to be followed if one wished to have their grievances on the issue addressed.

He said threats of violence would only result in arrest.

"We are already facing a difficult and challenging period in battling Covid-19 and any move to gather in numbers will aggravate current

efforts," Tudravu said.

All the politicians taken in for questioning on Sunday have been released, he said.

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