AFP/Google Online/Pacific Media Watch): Fiji was suspended from the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum Saturday and told there was no place for a regime which displays "such a total disregard for basic human rights".
Suspension from the regional bloc, which represents the common interests of Pacific island nations, came as a forum deadline lapsed for Fiji coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama to set a date for democratic elections this year.
"It is with considerable sorrow and disappointment that I confirm the suspension of the current military regime in the Republic of the Fiji Islands," said forum chairman Toke Talagi.
"This difficult decision, agreed unanimously between all forum leaders at our retreat in Port Moresby on January 27, 2009, responds to Commodore Bainimarama's failure to address constructively by May 1, 2009 the expectations of forum leaders to return Fiji to democratic governance in an acceptable time-frame."
In a response issued nearly 10 hours after the suspension announcement, Fiji described the move as "regrettable" and refused to budge on its reform blueprint which rules out elections for five years.
"It is regrettable for a number of reasons," Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said as Fiji became the first nation suspended in the 39-year history of the forum.
The "untenable proposition that elections should be held at any cost immediately, even under a flawed system, is not only patronising, but demonstrates a lack of commitment to true democracy and sustainable parliamentary representation."
Sayed-Khaiyum said the forum "has chosen to ignore the circumstances in Fiji" and claimed its stand reflected the views of the two regional powers, Australia and New Zealand.
Bainimarama -- who overthrew the elected government in a 2006 coup -- has since tightened his grip on power and last month declared there will not be elections until 2014.
He also tested the resolve of the forum saying Friday he did not believe it would carry out its threat of suspension.
But Talagi said the suspension was particularly timely "given the recent disturbing deterioration of the political, legal and human rights situation in Fiji" since last month when a court ruled Bainimarama's reign was illegal.
The military regime responded by sacking the judiciary, scrapping the constitution, censoring the news media and guaranteeing itself five more years in power.
"A regime which displays such a total disregard for basic human rights, democracy and freedom has no place in the Pacific Islands Forum," Talagi said in a statement, adding the suspension took immediate effect.
Economist Biman Prasad, from the Fiji-based University of the South Pacific, told Radio New Zealand the suspension was likely to be more harmful to the region than to Fiji, given the amount of trade between Fiji and other Pacific islands.
In addition to suspension from the regional forum, Fiji also faces being ostracised by the Commonwealth, which has said it would suspend Fiji by September if no progress is made towards restoring democracy.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has also warned a lack of democratic principles will lead to Fijian soldiers being cut from UN peacekeeping operations, depriving the island nation of an important source of revenue.
Bainimarama, who insists he has broad popular support at home, has consistently shrugged off international criticism and defended his decision to impose emergency rule and keep a lid on any challenges to his authority.
He sees Fiji as beset by divisions between the majority indigenous population and the ethnic Indian minority and has vowed to reform the electoral system before holding elections.