SUVA, Fiji (AP) — Fiji's military regime passed a new constitution Friday in a step that's raising both hopes and concerns among many who want democracy restored to the South Pacific island nation.
The regime that seized power in a 2006 coup says the constitution is another step toward it holding free elections next year. The document lays out the framework for a democracy, including a Parliament consisting of 50 representatives elected every four years on the basis of one person, one vote.
But many say the constitution also curtails freedoms and is self-serving to the regime. The constitution allows for some freedoms to be suspended when leaders perceive a threat to public safety, order or morality — exemptions that critics say are broad enough to allow rulers to repress opponents.
Fiji police on Friday arrested about a dozen people, including a former prime minister, who were apparently peacefully protesting the new constitution, highlighting the restrictions that opposition groups continue to face.
It's the country's fourth constitution since 1970. It was signed by President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau and will take effect Saturday. It comes after a draft prepared by an outside expert, Yash Ghai, was discarded by the regime, which then came up with its own version.
Fiji's leader Frank Bainimarama said the constitution enshrines principles including an independent judiciary, a secular state, and a range of civil, political, and socio-economic rights. He said it provides a blueprint for the country to move forward.
"On any fair reading, it safeguards the rights of every Fijian and finally lays the basis for the development of a modern, progressive and enlightened state," he said.
Bainimarama plans to contest next year's elections.
Mick Beddoes, a spokesman for the opposition group United Front for a Democratic Fiji, said the constitution was not a document of the people. He and former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry were among those arrested and taken into custody for about two hours during Friday's protests.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch said provisions in the constitution that grant forgiveness for past abuses and coups will give complete immunity to coup leaders.
"Rarely has a whitewash of past rights abuses been so sweeping and absolute," said Phil Robertson, the group's deputy Asia director, in a statement.
He said Bainimarama's government has consistently attacked its critics and that the military and police have indiscriminately arrested and detained human rights defenders, journalists, and labor leaders.
Neighboring countries including New Zealand and Australia have cautiously welcomed the new constitution. Australia's Foreign Minister Bob Carr said it was a significant development and important step toward Fiji holding elections next year.
Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.