Deposed Fiji PM launches court action over coup

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SUVA, Oct 4 (Reuters) Fiji's ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase started court action under tight security today, challenging the legality of the South Pacific nation's military-backed government.

Qarase was toppled in a bloodless coup last December by military chief Frank Bainimarama, who has since been appointed prime minister by the nation's president.

Bainimarama claimed Qarase's largely indigenous government was corrupt and too soft on those responsible for a coup in 2000.

Qarase has lived in exile on his island home since the coup, only returning to the capital Suva in September -- a move which prompted Bainimarama to reimpose a state of emergency.

Qarase's lawyer, Nye Perram, told the Suva High Court yesterday that Bainimarama did not have the constitutional power to dismiss Qarase and form a government.

''We're quite confident, if the supreme law of the land is used here. The constitution is very clear on legality and ... what happened in December,'' Ted Young, former Fijian minister for provincial affairs, told reporters at the court in the capital.

PRESIDENTIAL POWER But the lawyer representing the Bainimarama government told the court that the ousting of Qarase was under the direction of Fiji's President Ratu Josefa Iloilo.

State lawyer Guy Reynolds told the court that Iloilo's sovereign powers should not be subject to judicial review.

''He has got reserve powers to do whatever is necessary to do in a crisis,'' Reynolds said. ''These are matters that should not be dealt with by the court, but the president himself.'' Fiji, a former British colony of about 900,000 people, had its Commonwealth membership suspended after the Dec 5 coup, just as it did after two other coups in 1987 and in 2000.

Despite international condemnation, Fiji's military chief has refused to relinquish power or set a date for fresh elections.

Qarase's lawyer told the court that Bainimarama had demanded that Qarase drop planned ''reconciliation'' laws which would offer amnesty to people involved in a 2000 coup in return for evidence.

Perram said on December 4, 2006, Bainimarama asked Qarase to resign, but he refused. The military chief met the president the next day and asked him to dismiss Qarase, saying that if he didn't he would take executive authority.

Perram said the president replied ''Vinaka Vakalevu (thank you very much) and Bainimarama then ordered the takeover.

''The president had done nothing -- a soldier had purported to dismiss the prime minister, appoint a caretaker government and dissolved parliament,'' he said.

''These are ultra virus (beyond his powers) because the constitution does not allow a soldier to do that,'' said Perram, adding that all laws and appointments since were also void.

The trial continues.

Reuters PD DB1034

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