Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-FIJI: Pro-Tibet Protestors Arrested, Face Charges

Shailendra Singh

SUVA, Apr 13 2008 (IPS) - Civil society organisations and a major trade union in Fiji have condemned the detention of 17 protestors for holding a peaceful vigil outside the Chinese embassy here to condemn deaths in Tibet following an army crackdown.

They say that Wednesday’s arrests were unconstitutional, and that there were no grounds for charging the protestors, who have been released.

Fiji, which is currently negotiating loans worth more than 228 million US dollars from China, has supported Beijing’s policy in Tibet.

Neighbouring Tonga’s King Taufa’ahau Tupou V, while on a state visit to China, last week, also voiced support for China’s handling of the unrest in Tibet.

Fiji and Tonga are among Pacific island countries that receive a heavy dose of Chinese aid and observe the ‘One China’ policy.

According to Xinhua News, King Tupou, who was the guest of the Chinese President Hu Jintao in the province of Hainan, said ‘China’s affairs can only be tackled by China and no interference from any foreign country was acceptable’.

Unlike Fiji, there have been no reports out of Tonga of any public outcry or demonstrations against the monarch’s stand.

Vanuatu, which like Tonga and Fiji has accessed large concessional loans from China, has been silent on the Tibet issue. No reports of any protests or demonstrators over the crackdown by Chinese troops have filtered out of the Melanesian nation.

Tibet&#39s government-in-exile, located in India, said scores of people died as Chinese troops moved to quell protests that began on Mar. 10, drawing worldwide condmenation.

Among those arrested in Suva last week was the commissioner of the Fiji Human Rights Commission and chairperson of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC), Shamima Ali.

According to Ali, the group was holding a silent vigil in support of those being killed in Tibet by the China’s armed forces. Nobody in the group was holding placards or obstructing the footpath.

Ali said that the arrest was in breach of Fiji’s constitution, which enshrines freedom of speech. "There is nothing wrong with holding a peace vigil (against) human rights violations in Tibet," said Ali. The Chinese Embassy in Suva in a press release said it supported the police action

Fiji’s interim government, headed by military strongman, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, has remained silent over the arrests.

Following the outbreak of violence in Tibet and the subsequent military crackdown, Bainimarama, who took power in a coup on Dec. 5, 2006, wrote to China’s government, expressing support for the manner in which it handled the recent riots in Lhasa.

The letter stated that it was necessary for China to take proper measures to safeguard national peace and security, and added that the Tibet issue was a domestic affair to be tackled by China.

But following an outcry by the civil society organisations and a swag of letters by angry writers in the open columns, Bainimarama was forced to defend the interim government’s stand.

He said the stand was very clear and consistent in terms of resolving the issue peacefully within the law. He added that it was an internal matter for The People’s Republic of China -"a long-standing friend of Fiji".

Unlike Fiji’s close traditional partners such as Australia and New Zealand, and major powers such as the United States and Britain, which condemned the Fiji coup and imposed sanctions against the regime, China remained silent and maintained its ties with the country.

Fiji is negotiating loans worth more than 228 million US dollars from China and already 113 million dollars has been approved to upgrade rural roads in this country.

A major trade union has condemned the arrests and voiced support for the protestors.

The general secretary of the Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions, Attar Singh, said the arrests were a violation of the right to free speech. He said the protestors should not be charged.

The Fiji Women’s Rights Movement spokesperson, Tara Chetty, who was among those arrested, said the action was unwarranted. "These unnecessary arrests have made a big incident out of what was a quiet and peaceful vigil showing solidarity with our fellow activists in Tibet," said Chetty. "This violation of the human rights of free speech and peaceful assembly, protected in the Fiji Constitution and at international law, is particularly troubling at a time when Fiji is ruled by an unelected government.’’

The detainees attempted to sit in separate groups in order to comply with laws governing public assembly. They were questioned in groups. Chetty said that police was not mistreating them.

"They were arrested for unlawful assembly, and some have been charged. However, officers at the scene appeared initially confused as to what law was allegedly being breached," she said.

The Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF) has demanded the dropping of all charges against the protesters.

"CCF is concerned that a group of peaceful citizens’, holding a quiet demonstration has been arrested. These citizens were not violating the peace of the country and were not disrupting any services,’’ He added that it was a mater of great concerne that the Interim Fiji government appeared to be condoning the human rights violations that are being committed by the Chinese government in Tibet.

"At this time in Fiji’s history, the government seems to be taking a preferential stance towards the Chinese government because of the promised Chinese aid to Fiji," Rev Yabaki said.

"CCF calls on the Fiji government to show respect for basic human rights, including the rights to Freedom of ex-pression, Freedom of Movement and Freedom from unreasonable searches or seizure," Rev Yabaki said.

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