SUVA, Fiji (Reuters) — Fiji nationalist rebel leader George Speight was charged on Friday with treason stemming from a two-month-long crisis in which gunmen stormed parliament and held the prime minister and members of his government hostage.
Sixteen of his supporters were also charged with treason, which carries the death penalty.
Speight was charged in Suva Magistrates Court with one felony charge of treason and another of conspiracy to commit treason.
Speight was accused of intending "to levy war against His Excellency the President of Fiji Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara in order to put constraint on the legitimate legislature and overtake the legitimate legislature" using armed force between May 19 and July 27.
The rebel leader plunged Fiji into crisis on May 19 when he stormed parliament, taking then-Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and most of his multiracial Cabinet hostage in the name of indigenous Fijian rights. The captives were held for 56 days.
Speight was arrested on July 26 at the start of a military crackdown that saw the arrest of about 450 of his supporters.
Mara, whose presidency was opposed by Speight, stepped aside when martial law was declared on May 29 as sporadic violence flared in the wake of the raid on parliament.
Speight's security adviser Ilisoni Ligaira, media adviser Joe Nata, political adviser Timoci Silatolu and his younger brother, Jim Speight, were among the 16 others also charged with treason.
Though treason carries the death penalty on conviction, it has not been carried out since Fiji's independence from Britain in 1970.
The charges were referred for a hearing in Fiji's High Court in four weeks, after which a trial date will be set. Pleas are not expected before the High Court hearing.
New Zealand, which joined Australia, the United States and the European Union in imposing limited aid, diplomatic and sporting sanctions on Fiji after the coup, welcomed the treason charges.
"Charging Mr Speight and his supporters with treason is a necessary step on the long road back to restoring Fiji's international reputation," New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark told reporters.
Earlier on Friday, Speight appeared for a bail hearing on five minor charges relating to the raid on parliament but the hearing was deferred for a week.
Chief Magistrate Salesi Temo ordered that Speight and 12 key aides be returned to the prison island of Nukulau off Suva until August 18, when the hearing would resume.
The bail hearing for those charged with treason was set for August 25.
Speight has pleaded not guilty to five charges of firearm offences, illegal assembly and the illegal burial of a supporter inside parliament. A trial on the charges will begin on Sept 1.
Speight, who says he was injured while in military custody, appeared in court on Friday with a small bandage on the back of his head.
Speight won a series of concessions before freeing his hostages last month, effectively ending the political influence of the country's large Indian minority.
The new, military-backed interim government led by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and made up almost entirely of indigenous Fijians will rule for up to three years.
Indians make up 44 percent of Fiji's 800,000 population but dominate the important sugar and tourism industries which have been battered by the political crisis.
About 300 Speight supporters gathered outside the courthouse in central Suva before Friday's bail hearing.
There were deafening cheers from the group when Speight and the others emerged from the building and were driven away.