WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Fiji’s former leader Frank Bainimarama was released on bail Friday after pleading not guilty to a charge that he abused his power as prime minister by stopping a police investigation.
Both Bainimarama and the nation’s suspended police commissioner had spent the night in jail after they were arrested Thursday.
“I served as Fiji’s prime minister with integrity and with the best interests of Fijians at heart,” Bainimarama told reporters outside the courtroom, adding that he would fight the charge not only for his legacy but also for democracy.
The development adds another twist to the volatile political situation on the Pacific island nation, where Bainimarama in December lost a tense election to Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka.
Last month, Bainimarama, 68, was suspended from parliament for three years for insulting the president, and this week he resigned from parliament in protest.
Bainimarama and Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho each face a single charge of abuse of office. Prosecutors claim the pair terminated an active police investigation into former staff members of the University of the South Pacific. Prosecutors said police were continuing their investigation and could lay more charges.
A former military commander, Bainimarama held power in Fiji for 16 years after first seizing the top job by force in a 2006 military coup. He later recast himself as a democratic leader by introducing a new constitution and winning elections in 2014 and 2018.
But in December, Rabuka, another former strongman leader, won by a razor-thin margin. Rabuka had led Fiji’s first military coup in 1987 and later served as an elected prime minister in the 1990s.
In a statement, Christopher Pryde, the director of public prosecutions, said Bainimarama and Qiliho had “arbitrarily and in abuse of the authority of their respective offices, terminated an active police investigation” after a complaint was laid with the police by the university in July 2019 in relation to “the activities of former staff members.”
Police said the pair were brought in for questioning Thursday and underwent video recorded interviews before being formally charged.
In announcing the charges, Acting Assistant Police Commissioner Sakeo Raikaci said he also wanted to “clear the air” over claims by the public that the investigation had been prolonged and subject to interference by senior officers.
“I want to reiterate the independence of the investigation processes in place, as what is being witnessed is not an attempt to purposely delay the investigation or questioning processes, but this is the proper manner in which investigations are to be conducted,” Raikaci said in a statement.
Located north of New Zealand, and east of Australia, Fiji is home to about 1 million people and is a popular tourist destination.