Coup leader in Fiji charged with treason

SUVA, Fiji - George Speight, the coup leader whose raid on Parliament plunged Fiji into two months of crisis, smiled and listened to cheers from hundreds of supporters Friday as he was driven to court to be charged with treason.

Speight was not required to enter a plea during the hearing at Suva Magistrate's Court. The charges filed against him included treason, conspiracy to commit treason and being an accessory after the fact to treason.

He could face the death penalty if convicted of treason, but he is unlikely to be put to death: No death sentence has been carried out in this Pacific nation since independence from Britain in 1970.

Speight led an armed group into Parliament on May 19 and took dozens of lawmakers hostage. He claimed ethnic Indian Fijians, a large minority here, had too much power and were threatening indigenous Fijian culture.

His rebels held hostages for eight weeks, freeing the last of them only after the military discarded Fiji's multiracial constitution, ousted the government and agreed to an amnesty for the rebels.

Speight was arrested late last month, just days after releasing the last of the hostages. The coup leader is being held in pretrial custody in a barbed wire pen on a prison island near Suva, Fiji's capital.

On Friday, he was driven to the court hearing under tight security along with 14 of his senior aides, who also face coup-related charges. About 300 supporters cheered and had to be held back by police as they arrived.

Speight appeared in court with an adhesive bandage on the back of his clean-shaven head. Chief magistrate Salesi Temo said he had received copies of medical certificates that bore out complaints by Speight and eight others of being assaulted by soldiers while in custody. Temo did not elaborate.

At a separate hearing last week, Speight pleaded innocent to minor public order and weapons offenses related to his leadership of the coup.

Indians were first brought to Fiji as indentured laborers in the 1870s by British colonialists, and the elected government that was ousted was led by Mahendra Chaudhry, the first prime minister from Fiji's ethnic Indian minority. The coup provoked sanctions from nations including Australia and the United States and has severely damaged Fiji's economy, which is based on sugar exports and tourism.

Speight's bodyguards, Vilimone Tikotani and Jitoko Soko, were among the Speight allies charged with treason. His media spokesman, Jo Nata, was one of those charged with conspiracy to commit treason.

All 15 people in court Friday were remanded to custody until Aug. 25.


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