Fiji’s ‘de facto PM’ named in inquiry into 1980s bombings

(ABC.NET) – There are growing calls for Fiji’s powerful Attorney-General to stand down from office, in the wake of allegations he was involved in two bomb attacks in the late 1980s.

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum wields extensive influence in Fiji’s Government and holds multiple ministerial portfolios. Some even refer to him as the country’s “de facto prime minister”.

Police are investigating historical allegations he played a role in two bombings in 1987, during a tumultuous period in Fijian politics that saw a coup and soaring ethnic tensions between the country’s Indigenous and Indo-Fijian populations.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum has given a statement to police in response to the allegations, which were made by two siblings from a prominent political family targeted in the bombings 33 years ago.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who is Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum?

Fiji Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum
Mr Sayed-Khaiyum holds a wide range of portfolios within the Fijian Government.(Fiji Ministry of Information)

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum is Fiji’s Attorney-General, and also serves as the country’s Minister for Justice, Economy, Communication and Anti-Corruption, in addition to other portfolios.

Some people call him “Minister A-to-Z”, in reference to his many roles in the Government and his position as a key powerbroker.

“He’s the de facto prime minister — he’s not got the prime ministerial title, but he has been the key person in Fiji politics,” John Fraenkel, an expert on Pacific politics at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, said.

Given his influence in matters of law and justice in Fiji, there are now calls for Mr Sayed-Khaiyum to step down from his ministerial positions while the police investigation is ongoing.

What is he accused of?

Fijian soldiers patrol Suva in a jeep after the 1987 coup led by Sitiveni Rabuka.
The bombings took place in the wake of an ethnically motivated military coup in Fiji in 1987.(AFP, file)

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum has been accused of being the perpetrator of two bombings that took place in October 1987 in the capital Suva.

The first complainant is Veronica Malani, the daughter of the then-education minister Ratu Filimone Ralogaivau. She says she saw Mr Sayed-Khaiyum throw a home-made bomb into the driveway of their family home 33 years ago, when she was 14 years old.

In a statement given to police in July this year, Ms Malani said she and her mother were both injured in the blast.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum has also been accused of another bombing the day before — at a bus stop near a department store in central Suva — which again targeted Ms Malani’s mother, injuring her and one bystander.

Ms Malani’s brother, Benedito Ralogaivau, who is now a police officer in Australia, also told police back in July that he watched this incident unfold as a child.

The incidents came in the aftermath of Fiji’s 1987 military coup, which saw Major General Sitiveni Rabuka take control of the government, a move he declared was aimed at stopping the Indo-Fijian community from taking political control of the country.

Indo-Fijians, the descendants of Indian indentured servants brought to Fiji by the British as labourers, are the second-largest ethnic group in Fiji behind the Indigenous iTaukei people.

Pro-democracy protesters in Sydney call for the reinstatement of Fiji's former PM.
Indo-Fijians in Fiji and abroad called for the country’s elected leader, Timoci Bavadra, to be reinstated after the 1987 coup.(AFP: Colin Townsend)

It is alleged Mr Sayed-Khaiyum was part of an Indo-Fijian pro-democracy group at the time of the 1987 coup and the bombing incidents.

This week Mr Sayed-Khaiyum gave a statement to police regarding the allegations. He has not responded to the ABC’s detailed questions about the matter.

Ms Malani was charged by Fiji’s Independent Commission Against Corruption earlier this year over allegations she illegally obtained financial advantage through her work at the Land Transport Authority.

Ms Malani declined to speak to the ABC about her police report, citing legal reasons.

What do we know about what happened in 1987?

An article on one of the bombing incidents, taken from the New Straits Times in October 19, 1987.
The bombings did happen, but police say the perpetrators were charged at the time.(New Straits Times)

Well for starters, we know that the two 1987 bombing incidents did in fact happen.

There are archival news stories from October 1987 that refer to the bus stop incident and the subsequent bombing at the Ralogaivau family home.

Ratu Ralogaivau was the education minister in Mr Rabuka’s new post-coup government, and his decision to take up the portfolio was controversial.

He had been a member of the ruling Coalition Party prior to the coup, a party that was seen as being dominated by Indo-Fijians. He was expelled from the party for taking on the ministerial appointment, just one week before the bomb attacks.

The ABC approached former deputy commissioner of police, Moses Driver, who investigated the bombings at the time, to ask about the incidents.

Mr Driver, who now lives in Brisbane, said he was unable to comment as he was assisting police in Fiji with their inquiries.

Fiji police this week said two people were charged in relation to the bombings following the original police investigation, with Acting Commissioner of Police Rusiate Tudravu saying the matter had been “dealt with in court” at the time.

What’s happening now?

Mr Bainimarama walks past an artillery salute with soldiers dressed in Australian army uniforms in Canberra.
Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is yet to comment on the allegations about his Attorney-General.(ABC News)

Police are still investigating the claims, and are calling on the public to remain patient. Charges have not been laid, and the allegations are yet to be tested in court.

There have been calls for Mr Sayed-Khaiyum to step down from his portfolios in the area of justice while the police investigation continues.

Officers had previously sent a brief of evidence to Fiji’s director of public prosecutions (DPP), Christopher Pryde, to decide whether charges should be laid, however this was sent back with a request for further investigation.

While Mr Sayed-Khaiyum, as Attorney-General, is consulted as part of the process that leads to the appointment of the DPP, a spokeswoman for Mr Pryde said his office was completely independent from the Attorney-General.

The ABC is not suggesting there has been any political interference in the case, however political sociologist Steven Ratuva from the University of Canterbury says there does need to be transparency.

“There has to be a sense of justice in the process, devoid of potential interference,” he said.

Despite the story being flashed on the front page of one of Fiji’s leading newspapers several days this week, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has so far not made any comment on the saga.

One of Fiji’s former leaders, Mahendra Chaudhry, told the ABC he thought that was not good enough, given Mr Sayed-Khaiyum’s senior role within the Government.

Two police officers stand in front of a yellow building and makeshift polling station in Suva.
Experts say Mr Sayed-Khaiyum is not popular within Fiji’s military-dominated police force.(ABC News: Catherine Graue)

“What is [Mr Bainimarama’s] position on this? Has he asked the Minister to step aside? Is he going to do anything about it or not? I think there is a need for him to issue a statement on the matter,” Mr Chaudhry said.

Dr Fraenkel said he was watching for signs of tension between Mr Bainimarama and Mr Sayed-Khaiyum, as well as tensions between Fiji’s military-dominated police force and the Attorney-General.

“Military officers have of course been at the head of the police force, and that creates an interesting dynamic … it’s well known the top brass in the military are not supportive of the Attorney-General,” he said.

“At times that tension between the top brass in the military and the A-G has threatened to come out in public, but it hasn’t, it’s been kept behind closed doors, so we’ll see what happens in that respect.”

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