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Fiji treason case starts

Speight under arrest
Speight, shown with a supporter after his arrest last year, faces a preliminary inquiry on treason charges  

SUVA, Fiji -- Fiji's first treason case has started under heavy security, with a preliminary inquiry that could take as long as six months to complete.

George Speight, the failed businessman who led the May 2000 coup attempt, appeared in court on Tuesday along with 12 co-accused.

Speight's actions ultimately saw the removal of Fiji's elected government in July last year.

Speight and his cohorts are charged with 13 acts of treason. Asia
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Presiding judge Chief Magistrate Salesi Temo has said if there is sufficient evidence to prove Speight and his group committed even one of the overt acts of treason they will face a High Court trial.

Temo is expected to call some 200 witnesses.

Violence and looting

Laisenia Qarase
Caretaker PM Laisenia Qarase will contest the August elections  

Suva was the scene of inter-racial violence and looting after Speight and an armed gang stormed Parliament on May 19 last year taking then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and many of his cabinet ministers hostage.

Speight claimed to be acting to protect the rights of indigenous Fijians, who make up 51 percent of the South Pacific nation's 830,000 people.

There is considerable suspicion and economic envy among indigenous Fijians towards the country's large community of ethnic Indians, who make up 44 percent of the population.

Speight and his backers - who are said to include military, political and business figures - sought to exploit this.

After Speight's attempted coup, the military took charge on May 29 last year.

Armed forces commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama negotiated Chaudhry's release on July 13 after the hostages had spent 56 days in captivity.

But instead of Chaudhry returning to government, Bainimarama installed his own interim civilian administration under Qarase five days later.

As a consequence of the Court of Appeal ruling that the Qarase government is illegal, Fiji will hold general elections on August 28.

Qarase, who still heads a caretaker government, is a candidate in those elections, as is Chaudry.

Chaudhry's former deputy prime minister, Tupeni Baba, is expected to announce Tuesday the formation of his own breakaway New Labour Party.

Baba has been a vocal critic of Chaudhry's leadership of the Labour Party.

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