May 8, 2008
Evan Hannah Speaks : How Fiji threw rule book out
By Evan Hannah | May 08, 2008
INCHEON airport in Seoul is huge, modern, slick and a shade over 10 hours' flying from Nadi in Fiji, where I boarded a Korean Air flight at 10am last Friday.
It was the halfway point on my huge dogleg flight to Sydney, a route only a madman would book, but the only route left to desperate immigration officials in Fiji, struggling to follow orders to deport me.
Other airlines leaving Nadi that morning refused to carry me, observing High Court orders issued late the night before to prevent my deportation.
The immigration staff who successfully deported me in defiance of those orders also defied a writ of habeas corpus issued at the same hearing. This abuse of the rule of law is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this saga, which began three months ago with the deportation of another publisher, Russell Hunter of The Fiji Sun.
Media freedom is clearly at risk of further erosion, with Interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, as late as Monday, threatening to close media outlets that fail to comply with his version of fair and balanced coverage.
The manner of my deportation from Thursday night until now clearly adds to the mounting evidence human rights are becoming a heavily discounted commodity. I was denied consular access, denied unfettered use of my mobile phone and denied a reasonable place to rest while being detained.
Left behind in Suva is a stunned workforce at The Fiji Times. Our committed, forthright editor-in-chief Netani Rika says his team will continue to report in the manner of the past, bringing all voices and opinions into our pages and favouring none. They are a credit to journalism, as all Fiji Times staff are a credit to Fiji's embattled media industry.
Also, painfully, left behind is my family - wife Katarina and young son Ben - struggling to come to terms with a fractured home and uncertain future.
So how does someone manage to warrant deportation under the regime? The Defence Minister labelled me a "threat to national security". This is a handy catch-all, which under the regime's new law - still to be tested in court - means no explanation is required from the minister and no appeal is allowed to me.
But I was not deported for this reason; this was added on Friday. On Thursday night, according to the deportation order I saw, I had merely breached the conditions of my work permit. That, too, was not backed with any explanation or evidence.
I cannot find the trigger that led to three immigration officers and one police constable appearing at my door at about 6.30pm on Thursday, clutching a yellow sheet of paper: the removal order. My wife's sister Meliki recognised one of the immigration men and asked them to wait at the door. She came to where my wife and I were talking at the back of our home and warned me.
As I rang lawyers and our newsroom, Katarina let in the officers and sat them down in our lounge.
A Fijian, Kata explained to the men that deporting me would deprive our son of his father. In traditional society, family is paramount. In her carefully worded Fijian, she pointed out I had a constitutional right to at least live in Fiji, as the spouse of a citizen.
Her pleas saw the policeman wipe tears from his eyes, but the immigration team remained unmoved. Soon after our lawyers appeared, objected to my removal, were firmly rebuffed, and I had less than a minute to farewell my wife and now crying and distressed son. We were told I would be taken to Nadi and deported to Sydney the next morning. I was escorted to a sedan, wedged in the middle of the back seat between two officials.
Then followed a car chase worthy of a B-grade Hollywood movie, with unmarked vehicles creating temporary roadblocks, speedy trips down side roads, switching vehicles and continuous conversations and shouted orders on multiple mobile phones. Finally the media pack was lost, and we headed west into the filthy storm that had been brewing for hours.
At times during the 200km trip from Suva to Nadi, normally a three-hour drive on mostly single-lane roads, we were reduced to crawling at 20km/h, so heavy was the rain. At others we sped up to 110km/h, 30km/h over the national limit, in an attempt to make up time. This casual breach of the law could have forewarned me to breaches to come, but this is Fiji, where road rules are designed to be broken by government vehicles. I discovered the speed was solely required to reach Nadi in time to catch the best takeaway food outlets.
Once we reached our destination - a private home on the outskirts of the airport - the lead immigration officer complained that my delays in Nadi meant he couldn't buy his preferred fast food.
He seemed surprised at my curt tone when I suggested I wasn't particularly worried that my attempt to exercise my rights to legal counsel had ruined his meal. He may already have been annoyed, however, by my constant references to the fact orders for my release had been issued by the High Court in Suva.
I discovered this exhilarating news halfway across the island, when I was allowed to use my mobile phone to assure my wife I was physically safe. When I relayed her news that orders had been issued, I was met with silence. I tried many more times to get this message across and was ignored. My phone was then taken from me, as was my briefcase containing my laptop.
There followed a mostly sleepless and worrying night on a single bed with single, unwashed sheet, a musty blue bedcover and two lumpy pillows with stained, embroidered pillowcases. My escorts also slept in the first floor of the house, one curled up on a small table, another stretched out on a bench, the only furnishing in the "lounge" area.
The next morning I was offered tea, and we were whisked away again, this time to a security gate on the airport's perimeter. Here we switched vehicles again, and another set of casually dressed men climbed into the vehicle and drove me through the airport grounds, underneath the nose of a Boeing 747 and around to the VIP arrivals area, which looked unusually neat and tidy. I discovered soon after it had been prepared for the arrival of the Interim Prime Minister and his entourage, coming back to Fiji on Korean Air.
From my new base at the VIP departures lounge, a Ministry of Information officer and I sat alone, listening to the various boarding calls of flights to Auckland, Sydney and Brisbane come and go, but unable to see into the departures area.
Three hours later a protocol officer joined us and beckoned me to follow.
We left the airport building and went on to the tarmac. I asked him where we were going, sure the orders had finally been obeyed, and that I was to be dropped at the public area of the terminal.
Instead, he pointed to the Korean Air Airbus 50m away, the jet that brought Commander Bainimarama into Fiji earlier that morning. "You're going on that," he said.
That Fiji had resorted to the deportation process at all was astounding, but to have to resort to such a slapstick solution in defiance of the courts was beyond my rational understanding at the time. I was handed back my briefcase and mobile phone as I boarded and took seat 51C, and was finally able to contact my wife. I have no idea what I said to her, but knowing I would be out of contact for many hours was deeply depressing.
The beer Australian consular officials bought me at Incheon will remain a courtesy I will never forget, a civilised punctuation mark in a disgraceful episode that is another illustration of Fiji's present approach to good governance, transparency and accountability.