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Fijian rebel leader charged, investigated for treason

SHARE Fijian rebel leader charged, investigated for treason

SUVA, Fiji — Fijian rebel leader George Speight has been charged with a series of criminal offenses and is being investigated for treason, police said on Tuesday.

The charges mean Speight is likely to be brought from his island prison of Nukulau to face a court in the capital city of Suva, although a date for a hearing has not been set.

Assistant Commissioner of Police Moses Driver said Speight and several key supporters had been charged with offenses under emergency decrees in place in Fiji.

"They are quite serious in nature," Driver told Reuters.

The charges include unlawful assembly at Fiji's parliament house, where Speight's group held deposed prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry hostage for 56 days, and at a school where they gathered after Chaudhry's release last month.

They were also charged with consorting with people in possession of firearms and illegal burial of a body at the parliament house. Speight's group buried one of their supporters who died after a brief gun battle with the military on July 4.

Driver said the military, police and prosecutors were still examining possible treason charges against Speight.

Fiji's military has said Speight could face treason charges for storming parliament on May 19 and taking Chaudhry, Fiji's first Indian leader, and most of his cabinet hostage in the name of indigenous Fijian rights.

Treason carries the death penalty, which has not been enforced since independence in 1970.

Speight's lawyer Kitione Vuetaki said Speight and three key aides had been injured while held under military guard.

Speight said he and his colleagues were beaten by sailors on the way to Nukulau, suffering head and chest injuries.

"They were quite badly off . . . serious injuries," Kitione Vuetaki told ABC television.

"According to them they were beaten for two hours."

The military arrested more of Speight's associates on Tuesday, and the main pocket of unrest now appears to be in the farming community of Dreketi on Fiji's second largest island of Vanua Levu.

Speight's brother Jim was one of three men arrested by police at Korovou, where some houses of Indo-Fijians had been burnt, on Tuesday evening. The military are still searching for four others closely associated with the Speight group.

The military has regained control of its barracks in Labasa, which had been occupied by rebels, and was now trying to restore order in Dreketi, where Indian families are being terrorized.

The military is also hoping for a peaceful end this week to a rebel occupation of a hydro-electric facility at Monasavu on the main island of Viti Levu.

Speight was arrested last week, and on Saturday moved to Nukulau, a small island off the capital.

Fiji's military had offered him and his core group amnesty from prosecution on charges relating to the storming of parliament as part of a deal to secure the hostages' release, but it was never granted because not all guns were returned, as specified, before the amnesty offer closed last week.

Speight is also alleged to have made threats to Fiji's head of state, ailing 79-year-old President Ratu Josefa Iloilo.

About 160 Speight supporters were taken to court on Monday, part of a group of 361 people facing charges after being rounded up at their rebel camp in a Suva school last Thursday.

Some who appeared in court on Monday were injured and one man had his face heavily bandaged. Almost all were given bail on a charge of unlawful assembly and told to reappear in four weeks.

Defence lawyers said more were due in court on Wednesday.

Driver said it was unlikely Speight would appear in court until all 361 people had been processed by the courts.

The new interim government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase on Tuesday toured the damaged parliament complex where Speight held Chaudhry and most of his cabinet hostage.