Absolute discharge for Bainimarama, fine without record of conviction for Qiliho

Suva, Fiji: When Suva Magistrate Seini Puamau took her seat in court this morning to deliver her sentence against former Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and suspended Police Commissioner, Sitiveni Qiliho, she warned those in attendance that there were to be no boos or cheers when she delivered that decision.

And but for the cheers that floated into the court from spectators at a cricket match in nearby Albert Park, the court was largely silent as she spent more than an hour delivering her decision.

But the sighs of relief from their family and supporters in the courtroom were audible as Magistrate Puamau ruled that Bainimarama be given an absolute discharge, and then imposed a $1500 fine without entering a record of conviction against Qiliho. And after the magistrate departed the court, Bainimarama, Qiliho and their supporters exchanged long embraces and handshakes.

Bainimarama had been charged with one count of attempting to pervert the course of justice. The charges stated that in July 2020 he directed the police commissioner to stop an investigation into complaints made to police by the University of the South Pacific. The complaints related to allegations of financial mismanagement at the regional university.

Qiliho was charged with one count of abuse of office, with the charges stating that in the same month, he directed members of the Force’s Criminal Investigations Department to stop investigating the USP complaint.

Puamau acquitted Bainimarama and Qilho of the charges in October last year. However earlier this month, the High Court overturned that ruling, convicting the pair, and sending them back to the Magistrates Court for sentencing.

Today Magistrate Puamau said there was no suggestion Bainimarama acted “for personal or financial gain.” 

Alongside what she described as Bainimarama’s “very low level of criminal culpability,” Magistrate Puamau also considered Bainimarama’s health status, and the impact that jail time would have on his health. The former Prime Minister was private about his health while in office, but today the court heard he had been fitted with a pacemaker, which was monitored via a mobile app and his doctor in Melbourne, that he suffered from sleep apnea and relied on a machine to ensure he received sufficient oxygen at night, and that he had undergone a heart bypass operation.

Noting that an appeal against the sentence had already been lodged in the Court of Appeal, she said “nothing is lost by exercising a degree of mercy and caution here and now.”

On the charge against Qiliho, Magistrate Puamau said there was no evidence that the then-police commissioner had directed the closure of the files on the USP matter for personal gain.  She said she did not consider it a fit case for a custodial term.

Departing the court compound after the sentencing, Bainimarama embraced supporters who had been waiting for the decision, and said he was “on top of the world.”

The lawyer for the Director of Public Prosecutions Office indicated they would be immediately filing an appeal to the sentences.