A Fiji-based human rights activist says she's been singled out for prosecution because of her opposition to the coup-installed interim government.
The Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption, which is bringing a case against Imrana Jalal for operating a business without a licence, has applied to have the trial transferred to the High Court.
Ms Jalal tells Radio Australia's Bruce Hill that although she's usually in court as a lawyer, she has plenty of experience of being in the dock as well.
Presenter: Bruce Hill
Speaker: Fiji human rights activist Imrana Jalal
JALAL: Well it's a very interesting place to be Bruce, but actually that is not the first time I have been there. I was prosecuted by the Rabuka regime, I am now being prosecuted by the Bainimarama regime and I wish George Speight had been long enough to charge to prosecute me also, so I would have an unblemished record that way.
HILL: Well, you're being charged over something I believe has a maximum penalty of a $20 fine, operating a restaurant without a licence. Why is this being taken to the High Court?
JALAL: Well, of course, in normal circumstance, there would be no request by the prosecutor to take this matter like this to a High Court, because it is actually a civil misdemeanour. So what happened was my husband had a restaurant, I was a silent director and he was asked to apply for a licence which he did. The Suva City Council took a long time to process the licence. When we finally got it, FICAC is prosecuting us for the period in which we did not have the licence while we were waiting for the restaurant licence. So it really is a civil misdemeanour.
More them 50 per cent of businesses in Fiji operate on that basis. When you open a business, you apply for a licence, but the Suva City Council allows you to proceed into business while the licence is being processed. So we're being singled out for prosecution. There are a number of very large businesses which are new and operating without a licence, but, of course, we have been singled out by FICAC.
HILL: Why do you think you have been singled out?
JALAL: Well, I think it's because of our political belief. I've called the Fiji government to account many times for the continuing human rights violations, where there is no freedom of speech. I belong to a number of human rights organisations for whom I associate with on a voluntary basis. We have been very critical of the government publicly about the position they have taken on human rights, rule of law, democracy, so I think that this is part of a campaign to shut us all up.
Having said that, on the 5th January 2010, Land Force Commander Pita Driti gave a very, very strong warning to people who were anti-government that they would be watched very carefully and that this year, he said, you will be treated the way you deserve and words to that affect. So I think I am one of the first casualties.
HILL: Well, on the other hand though, here you are talking to an overseas journalist pretty freely and excoriating the government. Obviously it is not North Korea or Burma. It's not as bad as that in Fiji surely?
JALAL: No, it is not as bad as Burma or Zimbabwe or elsewhere. However, I have pretty sure that my phone calls are being monitored and I am pretty sure that the conversation between you and me is being monitored very clearly, otherwise they would not know some of the stuff I was doing.
However, it is all relevant isn't it? I mean we have military censors in every newsroom. All the media in this country.
There is absolutely no independent or dissenting voice allowed to be published. I made a statement a few days ago about the FICAC prosecutions. None of what I said defending myself has been published in the local media, although it has been in the international media.
So I mean I guess its a relevant contest, even if our human rights is not being seen as flagrant violation. We have to protect them, because if you don't protect the small violations, they will just get bigger and bigger.
HILL: Why don't you just pay the $20 fine and just have it over and done with?
JALAL: I won't allow Mr Bainimarama to convict me for something I did not commit. I am a human rights lawyer. Where is my worth if I buckle at the first public persecution of me if you like. No, I won't plead guilty. I have been advised by a few of my lawyer friends, Imrana, just pay the fine, plead guilty, it's only a civil misdemeanour and it will be over and done with. You will be free the next day and I said I refuse to do that (Radio Australia's Pacific Beat/Pacific Media Watch)