Fresh details are emerging about the role of Fiji's Chief Justice in the recent explusions of Australia's High Commissioner from Suva and Fiji's representative from Canberra.
A memorandum from the Chief Justice Anthony Gates, who is also an Australian citizen, all but urges Fiji's military ruler to take action over the travel bans that he says stopped Sri Lankan judges taking up positions on the Fiji judiciary.
Presenter: Shane McLeod Radio Australia
Speakers: Peter Ridgway, former deputy Director, Department of the Public Prosecutions in Fiji and Anthony Gates, Chief Justice, Fiji
SHANE MCLEOD: Relations between Australia and New Zealand and Fiji's regime are at a new low after the Government of military ruler Frank Bainimarama last week booted out the diplomatic representatives of Canberra and Wellington.
That was precipitated by a dispute over the extent of travel bans Australia and New Zealand have imposed on the Fiji Government and officials. Those measures had prompted a rare media conference from the nation's Australian chief justice, Anthony Gates.
ANTHONY GATES: As head of the judiciary in Fiji, I must stand up against such interference. Fiji must have a judiciary and it is not for Australia and New Zealand to tell us we cannot have one or to tell us who we are to appoint.
SHANE MCLEOD: Chief Justice Gates was upset at moves by Australia to make it clear to seven Sri Lankan judges they wouldn't be allowed to travel through Australia once they'd taken up their posts in the Fijian judiciary.
ANTHONY GATES: Each one of the judicial officers was telephoned by a visa officer from the Australian High Commission counselling them against taking up the appointments in Fiji. They were each warned that if they took up the appointments, they would not be allowed to travel to Australia during their time in Fiji and that they would not be allowed into Australia for medical treatment for themselves or their families either.
SHANE MCLEOD: In response, Australia accused the chief justice of misrepresenting its approach to the visas for the Sri Lankan judges. By Wednesday, Frank Bainimarama had moved to expel the high commissioners.
Now there's more detail of the role that the chief justice played in that response from the Fijian Government. The Australian newspaper has published a memorandum sent by Justice Gates to Frank Bainimarama two days after his original media conference.
In it, he describes the Australian response to the question of visas for the judges as 'damage control'. He
refers to an audio recording of a phone call from the high commission to one of the judges, in which the chief justice says, the officer says the judge's visa has been denied.
A copy of that recording has been made available to Fiji's media but it does not appear to include confirmation a visa was not issued.
EXTRACT FROM TELEPHONE RECORDING: Individuals appointed to the Fiji judiciary, regardless of citizenship, became subject to these travel sanctions and that will obviously include yourself and individuals affected by travel sanctions are not allowed to travel to or through Australia although the travel sanctions policy is applied flexibly.
SHANE MCLEOD: The memo from Chief Justice Gates concludes with him pressing for action from Commodore Bainimarama.
EXTRACT FROM MEMO FROM ANTHONY GATES: I have already said the judiciary cannot expect help from any quarter, that is the nature of our independent role. However, from a political point of view, can the executive allow such interference to continue?
SHANE MCLEOD: And the next day, the Fijian Government moved to expel the Australian and New Zealand high commissioners.
Australia's Foreign Affairs Department has no comment to make on the memorandum, but it has highlighted its response to the original claims by the chief justice, in which it described him as having misrepresented Australia's handling of the visas. The World Today contacted the chief justice's office in Suva seeking a response, but was told he would not be available.
The central role that he's playing in the dispute has come as a surprise to those who've known the approach he's taken to his legal career over a number of years. Peter Ridgway served as deputy director in Fiji's Department of Public Prosecutions. He playing a key role in dealing with the perpetrators of the 2000 coup led by George Speight.
PETER RIDGWAY: His role in recent events particularly in the post-Bainimarama coup and things that have followed, it is very difficult to reconcile with the highly principled staunch defender of the judiciary and the constitution that I worked with in 2001-2005 period. So I find it very hard to recognise the same individual - Radio Australia