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Monday, 18 February, 2002, 08:06 GMT
Analysis: Speight's day in court
George Speight and supporters inside parliament grounds
George Speight's actions ripped Fiji apart
By the BBC's Phil Mercer

News that he death penalty handed down to George Speight has been commuted to a life sentence capped a day of high drama in Fiji.

It is yet another spectacular twist in Fiji's painful journey through chaos sparked by the nationalist coup he led two years ago.

George Speight
Speight after sentencing: A different story from the coup leader of two years ago
The country's Daily Post newspaper had reported that it was widely expected that Speight and 12 co-defendants "would get off lightly in return for pleading guilty", but instead he was originally sentenced to be hanged.

Death is still the mandatory sentence for treason under Fiji's constitution, and despite a government announcement last week that it was to abolish the penalty, the Attorney-General Qoriniasi confirmed that the new legislation was not yet in place.

Clemency decision

George Speight's fate was decided by a three-man Mercy Commission.

Burnt out car, Suva
Suva was hit by unrest during and after the coup
The commission considered a report submitted by the trial judge.

Under the 1997 Constitution, President Iloilo could have pardoned Speight or handed down a lesser sentence.

He instead signed a decree commuting Speight's death sentence to life imprisonment.

Former Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who carried out two nationalist coups in 1987 when he was head of the military, was pardoned by the president.

There have been no executions in the former British colony since independence in 1970.

'Sad day'

There had been an angry reaction from some nationalists to the High Court ruling that George Speight was to hang.

Mahendra Chaudhry
Chaudhry is now challenging the government in the courts
The hardline Conservative Alliance party also said it was a sad day for indigenous Fijians.

Alliance MP Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure said Speight was a hero and was only trying to ensure that indigenous people and their families could have a safe future in Fiji.

George Speight fought and won a seat for the Conservative Alliance at last year's election in the nationalist stronghold of Tailevu North, the former rebel leader's home province.

The security forces in the country remain on full alert but George Speight has urged his supporters to remain calm amid fears of a nationalist backlash.

George Speight never denied leading the uprising that ousted the Indian dominated government of Mahendra Chaudhry.

He insisted he was granted immunity from prosecution in a deal brokered by the military and the powerful Great Council of Chiefs, the country's traditional rulers whose political role is largely symbolic but who still command great respect among the indigenous community.

Mr Chaudhry remains at the forefront of Fijian politics and is currently engaged in a constitutional dispute that threatens the future of Laisenia Qarase's nationalist government.

Silent Speight

Speight, a failed businessman who was charged under his Fijian name Ilikimi Naitini, has yet to reveal why he pleaded guilty to treason.

Torika Rawlinson
Speight's wife said he was in high spirits before the case
In a written statement, Speight said that he would "not tell all as it serves no purpose other than to cause further unrest and uncertainty".

Earlier, he looked calm and confident as he walked into court wearing a traditional Fijian skirt known as a sulu and his trademark shaved head.

His wife Torika told reporters he was "in very high spirits and looking forward to the start of the case".

In previous court appearances Speight often spoke at length, grandstanding and relishing the spotlight.

The weeping figure with his head bowed as the death penalty was passed stands in stark contrast to the confident and charismatic man who brought down democracy in May 2000.

See also:

31 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji seeks judge for Speight trial
08 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji rebel kicked out of parliament
19 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Coup leader speaks
19 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Ethnic split behind Fiji coup
19 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Ethnic split haunts Fijian politics
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