The outgoing chair of the Constitution Commission, Yash Ghai, has told Radio Australia Fiji police illegally confiscated printed copies of the draft constitution, and set some of them on fire.
Ghai says all 600 copies of the draft document were seized from the printer three days before Xmas, on Saturday the 22nd.
He also told Pacific Beat he was abused by the police officer in charge of the operation when he tried to tell them their actions were illegal.
Predictably the regime has not responded to the allegations.
Ghai told presenter Bruce Hill he was called when police arrived at the printers to confiscate the copies of the proposed new constitution.
GHAI: Well I decided that I would go to the printers and talk to the police and tell them that the copies of the draft constitution belonged to the commission and we had ordered the printing, we had done the report, therefore they should desist from confiscating those copies.
HILL: What was the response of the police when you went down there and remonstrated with them about this?
GHAI: Well there were 12 policemen there who had been sent to collect the boxes, and they didn’t really know how to respond to me. And I said the police had always to act according to the law and the documents belonged to us. But they were a bit embarrassed and they didn’t know what to say. Then after a while they rang someone and they told me that the officer in charge of the particular operation was going to come and explain to me the reasons. Well it took about half an hour, a bit more, before that officer came, and he seemed very angry with me and was quite rude to me. But I explained to him the background of the printing of the documents. He used language I can’t repeat on the phone … and sort of brushed me aside and ordered the staff to, or the police to upload the boxes in the truck they had brought for this purpose.
HILL: Presumably the police don’t make this decision by themselves. Did the officer in charge tell you had ordered this?
GHAI: No, he said he had his orders. I told him that I’d be trying to call the Commissioner of Police as soon as I heard that the police were at the printers, but I could not reach him. I wrote a letter when he I couldn’t reach him setting out the circumstances of the printing and saying that he should instruct his police not to confiscate them. And I showed him that letter and said if he were to take the copies, I would be grateful if he could sign that letter so that … but he took it knowing that I thought it was illegal.
HILL: So was this in any sense legal? Was there a warrant to take these? Was this simply as you say a confiscation of what was officially the Constitution Commission’s property?
GHAI: No there were no instructions, no written instructions. In the beginning he just said this printing is illegal, and I said under what law? He said under the decree, he meant the decree which governs the process. And I said no, on the contrary, we are completely independent and we decide how we distribute our documents. Then I said he contradicted me, abused me, then I said are you a lawyer? He said no. I said well I am, and I’ve been working under the decree. And then it seemed that it was a bit pointless, so then I stopped trying to persuade him.
HILL: Now I understand that there was another incident just on the tail end of this in which some shredded copies of the final document the printers had used for proofing, were actually piled in front of you, soaked in kerosene and set on fire?
GHAI: Yes exactly and I was saying why are you setting it on fire? You have shredded it, nobody can put it together or you can just take it with you and you can cut up a bit further, but they insisted on, they brought a tin of kerosene and spread all the papers, brought some stick with a flame at the end and started the burning of it, and every few minutes or seconds they would come and put another dose of kerosene, so the flames would rise up again until everything was reduced to ashes.
HILL: As you were watching this draft constitution that you’ve been working on for months, what was going through your mind?
GHAI: Well I was of course extremely upset and I thought that this was some sort of symbolic act on the part of whoever gave the orders to tell me that this is how we will treat your work. And I felt extremely sorry, not for myself, but for the people of Fiji, if this was indeed an order from the government then it shows such contempt for our work, and in turn contempt for the people who had come out in their thousands and thousands to give us their views, participate in the process. And I felt really not just a betrayal, I just felt will Fiji ever have a democratic constitution.
HILL: Given that this has happened, what do you feel now about the government’s publicly stated commitment to return Fiji to democracy in a fair and transparent process?
GHAI: Well I hope that the government will ensure that the Constituent Assembly that it proposes to establish will really be representative of the people.
HILL: Given however that they quite literally made the constitution go up in flames in front of you, can you really have confidence that this government will actually do that?
GHAI: Well I have to say this is very discouraging.
HILL: Do we know where the actual physical printed copies of the draft constitution were actually taken away to by the police?
GHAI: Well they didn’t tell me. I heard some people say it will go to the Attorney General’s office, some saying it’ll go to the police station. And I had wanted to know because I had this letter they had signed saying they were taking it, but they won’t tell me where it was to be taken.
HILL: Given that this whole process is not your process, you were the chair of the commission, but it’s very much everyone’s process, a lot of people and groups in Fiji took part in this. What message do you think the people of Fiji should take from what’s happened?
GHAI: Well I don’t know, I think they should continue to take part in the remaining stages of the process, which is the next one is convening of the Constituent Assembly. The government has said those who wish to be on the assembly should express their interest through a letter to the PM’s office. And I believe that people should participate in the process despite their scepticism.
HILL: Well given what you’ve just said they would have a right to be sceptical wouldn’t they?
GHAI: Well they indeed have a right to be, but I think institutions like this one has to do one’s best to participate. I think people should participate even though they have reservations about the process.
HILL: You’ve done this sort of thing all around the world, you’ve been involved in similar activities in Kenya, in Cambodia, you’ve guest lectured in Sweden and America and all over the world. Have you ever faced a situation like this where something this bad has happened and you’ve been personally abused by a police officer?
GHAI: No not really. I’ve had hard times in many places, but not quite to this extent, and I have never been in a process where there has been such an attempt to hide the recommendations of a body which was setup by this very government, which was encouraged to have a completely participatory process, which was assured they’ll be completely independent. And if this is the draft to be discussed by the Constituent Assembly, I would have thought that in keeping with good process people should have had a chance to read and discuss this, which indeed was what we had agreed, and that was what was in the decree which started the process.
HILL: Is there anything that we haven’t touched on in this interview that you’d like to mention about what’s happened and what it means for Fiji?
GHAI: Fiji cannot go on like this. Fiji has to return to some normality, but above all it has to make decisions about the future, about working and living together, creating national unity around certain common values, which are sketched out in great detail in the draft constitution, and which we believe is what people wanted. This is what we gathered from our discussions with them. I’d very much like to be able to encourage all the sides to work together. This is not a question of party politics, this is a question of the national interests and a constitution has to be a consensus document, otherwise it fails to perform its essential function of a kind of social contract. I have done the best I could, I’m an outsider, I was privileged to be asked to chair it. I was able to look at all points of view with some objectivity, and to suggest a compromise, not even a compromise really because I think it’s in the interests of all the groups that institutions, procedures, values we have recommended should become the foundation of Fiji.