The police harassment of opposition politicians for their criticism of the land law amendments highlights the restrictive space for civic freedoms in Fiji, said global civil society alliance CIVICUS today. The authorities must halt such actions immediately and respect the right to freedom of expression.
According to reports, nine prominent opposition politicians were arrested and questioned in Fiji for voicing concerns about a contentious land bill. Six members of parliament and three other high-profile politicians were taken into custody by the criminal investigations department on 25 and 26 July in relation to comments they had made regarding proposed amendments to a land bill. They were subsequently released.
The nine are Viliame Gavoka, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Liberal party (Sodelpa) party; the opposition whip Lynda Tabuya; the MPs Adi Litia Qionibaravi and Ro Filipe Tuisawau; Biman Prasad, the leader of the National Federation party; the NFP president, Pio Tikoduadua; the former prime ministers Sitiveni Rabuka and Mahendra Chaudhry; and the Unity Fiji leader, Savenaca Narube.
“This intimidation of opposition lawmakers and politicians just for their criticism of the land bill amendments must end. It is a blatant attack on their rights to peaceful expression and association. Everyone, including the political opposition, have a legitimate right to take part in public affairs and should not be silenced just because the authorities don’t like it,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS’s Asia Pacific researcher.
We are also concerned about reports that a volunteer for National Federation Party was arrested on 28 July after a raid on his home, linked to his opposition to the law, and detained at Totogo Police Station. He must be released immediately.
Civic space in Fiji is currently rated as ‘Obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The harassment of the pollical opposition takes place in the context of restrictions on freedom of expression and other human rights violations in Fiji. Sedition provisions in the Crimes Act and the Public Order (Amendment) Act have been used to target journalists, activists and government critics. Further, the right to peaceful assembly has been arbitrarily restricted with the use of the Public Order (Amendment) Act 2014.
There has been widespread protest from politicians, public figures and many in the community over the government’s intention to amend the iTaukei Land Trust Act. At the moment, any individual leasing land or wishing to make changes to a lease must do so through the iTaukei Land Trust Board, which was established to protect indigenous landowners’ rights – but the amendment reduces the Board’s powers to regulate those changes.
The NGO Coalition on Human Rights (NGOCHR) has demanded greater consultation and collaboration with all relevant stakeholders regarding any proposed changes to the law.