09 May 2024, 09:45

Former Fiji PM Bainimarama handed one-year prison sentence

 SUVA, Fiji, May 9, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - Former Fiji prime minister Frank Bainimarama was sentenced Thursday to one year in prison for perverting the course of justice, with a judge finding he used his political clout to shut down a police investigation.

Bainimarama was sentenced at Fiji's High Court in the capital Suva, after being found guilty this year of quashing a police probe into alleged corruption at a Fijian university.

The former military commander seized power in a bloodless coup in 2006 and remains a popular figure in the South Pacific nation.

A crowd of supporters sang outside the court as the sentence was handed down, before Bainimarama was handcuffed and led away into a waiting police truck.

Bainimarama's wife Maria sobbed throughout acting Chief Justice Salesi Temo's sentencing remarks.

A lower court magistrate ruled in March that Bainimarama's ailing health -- he underwent urgent heart surgery in 2022 -- meant the 70-year-old should not be sent to prison.

But Temo upended this decision, saying it "completely ignored" the severity of Bainimarama's actions.

The judge lashed former naval commodore Bainimarama for trashing his oaths of office.

He did, however, reduce Bainimarama's sentence on the strength of character references provided by two former Fijian presidents.

Fiji's former police commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho, a longtime ally of Bainimarama, was handed a two-year prison sentence in the same case.

The charges relate to a police investigation into staff at Fiji's University of the South Pacific in July 2020, when Bainimarama was prime minister and Qiliho the country's top officer.

- Legal woes -

Witnesses said that university staff tried to blow the whistle after stumbling across an allegedly suspicious web of bonus payments, promotions, and pay rises within the institution.

But Bainimarama and Qiliho used their influence to sideline a police investigation into those claims.

Both men have insisted on their innocence.

Bainimarama's 16-year grip on power was loosened at the end of 2022, when his longtime rival Sitiveni Rabuka formed a ruling coalition following a tumultuous general election.

The former leader's legal woes have mounted since he was succeeded by Rabuka.

In February 2023, parliament suspended him until 2026 after a speech in which he criticised his successor.

A year later, he was hit with two separate abuse-of-office charges.

One count related to the allegedly unlawful firing of two police officers in 2021.

The other was over his alleged waiving of a tender bid "without lawful justification" when he was finance minister in 2011.

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