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Last Updated: Friday, 29 July 2005, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Chiefs back Fiji's amnesty bill
Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase
Laisenia Qarase is a staunch supporter of the bill
A powerful indigenous body in Fiji, the Great Council of Chiefs, has backed a controversial bill granting amnesty to those involved in a coup in 2000.

The Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill, proposed by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, has been criticised by the opposition and human rights groups.

The military has even threatened to declare martial law if it is passed.

In its current form, the proposed bill will allow coup leaders such as George Speight to apply to be released.

Speight is currently serving a life sentence for treason, for his part in the coup to claim power for indigenous Fijians - storming parliament and removing the ethnic Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry five years ago.

Divisive issue

The proposed law states that anyone already convicted and serving a prison sentence for involvement in the coup will be able to have their case reconsidered if they seek amnesty on the grounds that their actions were political rather than criminal.

Any person granted amnesty will then be released "forthwith", the bill states.

The support of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) highlights the divisions over the Reconciliation, Unity and Tolerance Bill.

Support for Mr Qarase's proposal has mainly come from ethnic Fijian groups.

The GCC is one of the most influential, with the power to appoint Fiji's president and vice-president as well as nearly half of the Senate.

Fijian coup leader George Speight
George Speight has been found guilty of treason
"Now we are certain that we have received the overwhelming support of the Fijian people through the provincial councils as well as the GCC," Mr Qarase told reporters on Friday.

The chiefs had made "a well-informed decision in the best interests of the country," he told The Fiji Times.

But many members of the military, police and trade unions continue back the opposition's stance against the bill.

"The chiefs have failed to address the issue properly and this doesn't augur well for Fiji's future," opposition Labour Party Mahendra Chaudhry is quoted as saying.

Fiji army commander Frank Bainimarama warned that the law would "release terrorists into society" and "turn lies into truth", the Associated Press reported.

Last month Mr Bainimarama said he might even try to remove the country's government if it proceeded with the bill.

Earlier in July Mr Qarase conceded that "changes, improvements and clarifications" would be made to the bill if necessary, in what analysts say was a move to calm the situation.

In a fresh hint that some parts of the bill could yet be revised, he said again on Friday that recommendations for amendments would be considered carefully.

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