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Fiji accused of eroding civil rights by regul -

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Fiji accused of eroding civil rights by regulating legal profession

Reporter: Simon Santow

PETER CAVE: There's more evidence today of the erosion of civil rights in Fiji.

Hard on the heels of the Government there's sacking the nation's most senior judges; a new decree
has been issued which restricts the ability of lawyers to practise their profession freely.

Lawyers in Australia and New Zealand have condemned the move, saying it will destroy any
credibility Fiji has with the rest of the world.

Simon Santow reports.

SIMON SANTOW: Most Australians know Fiji as a happy place - an island paradise perfect for a
holiday.

But scratch the surface and the Pacific nation is far from a bastion of democratic bliss.

PETER RIDGWAY: Nobody will have a bar of Fiji anymore. Foreign investors won't look at it and that
means that Fiji is going to be a basket case for the long-term. It is a condition that it will not
be able to get out of for quite a long time.

SIMON SANTOW: Peter Ridgway is pessimistic because of what he's seen in the years since he walked
away from his job as the deputy director of the country's Department of Public Prosecutions.

And as a lawyer with extensive knowledge of Fiji, he's furious about the latest decree issued by
the unelected leader, military strongman Frank Bainimarama.

The decree places the power to grant a legal practising certificate with a government official,
opening up the system to potential corruption and discrimination.

PETER RIDGWAY: I think it will basically kill the profession in Fiji, the legal profession. I mean
there will always be dishonest lawyers who will probably survive under these new arrangements and
possibly even prosper but for any lawyers in Fiji who retain a sense of professional dignity, they
simply can't submit to this outrageous regime that's just been imposed on them.

SIMON SANTOW: In New Zealand, the legal profession says the move jeopardises the ability of a
lawyer to defend or to prosecute independently.

The reaction from the Law Council of Australia has been just as strident.

Dr Gordon Hughes is the council's spokesman on international issues.

GORDON HUGHES: In the past, practising certificates have been issued by the Law Society. In the
future, practising certificates will be issued and also not issued by the registrar - being a
government appointee.

Now that mechanism itself is fairly familiar to the common law world but it all depends upon the
integrity and independence of the registrar and if there's a perception that the registrar is doing
the bidding of the Government, and given the Fiji's Government's previous propensity to try and
silence its critics, there is concern that acting through the registrar, the Government might seek
to deny the right of practice to certain individuals.

SIMON SANTOW: And do you know anything of the integrity of this individual, of the Registrar of the
Court?

GORDON HUGHES: We have no reason to question the integrity of the Registrar. That's not really the
point. The point is the past behaviour of the Government, which has tended to stack its
appointments with people favourable to it and to remove people, including judges, who demonstrate
that they are not favourable to the Government.

Once you remove that notion of complete and fearless independence from people who are responsible
for administering the law, then the law becomes potentially a puppet of the Government and that's
unacceptable.

SIMON SANTOW: Last month Fiji's Government hit the headlines when it sacked the nation's most
senior judges because those judges had ruled the Government was unconstitutional.

Former senior prosecutor Peter Ridgway played a key role after the 2000 coup.

It was his job to prepare the cases and make decisions on who to prosecute without fear or favour.

A job that was difficult then but impossible under the new system.

PETER RIDGWAY: The lawyers who have had the courage to speak out against this regime will be
targeted. There will be retributions. The power under this new proclamation includes power to
punish after, even if lawyers aren't holding a practicing certificate and aren't practicing.

So any lawyer for example who out of conscious chooses not to toe this new line and doesn't renew
their practicing certificate or doesn't apply for one and therefore doesn't submit themselves to
the authority of this regime, they can still be targeted for retributive action by this new regime
well after they have ceased practice.

That's one of the most breathtaking pieces of legislating I have ever seen and I thought these
people were supposed to be acting out of conscience. Amazing.

PETER CAVE: The Former deputy director of Fiji's Department of Public Prosecutions, Peter Ridgway.
He was speaking to Simon Santow.