The leader of Fiji‘s main opposition party was granted bail by a Suva court this afternoon, having appeared on charges laid by the country‘s anti-corruption body.
The Sodelpa leader and former prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, was called in for questioning on Thursday night and for much of Friday morning before the charges were announced at about midday.
In a statement on Friday evening, the Independent Commission Against Corruption said Mr Rabuka had been charged with one count of providing false declaration of assets, income and liabilities — a violation of the Political Parties Act, which was brought in before the 2014 election.
FICAC said that in 2017, Mr Rabuka provided a false declaration of assets and liabilities to the Supervisor of Elections, Mohammed Saneem, by failing to provide information about a US$152,000 tax liability.
It said he also failed to declare hundreds of thousands of dollars woth of investment and interest income with Raghwan Constructions Limited, a Suva-based building contractor.
Mr Rabuka entered no plea in court, and was released on bail. He surrendered his passport and is required to sign in at a Suva police station on the first Saturday of every month.
The resident magistrate, Jioji Boseiwaqa gave the parties until the next court appearance, on 6 June, to decide whether or not they object to him hearing the matter, as Mr Boseiwaqa‘s father was a schoolmate of Mr Rabuka.
In a phone interview with RNZ Pacific from his party headquarters after his appearance, Mr Rabuka said he would defend the charges, which he said came as a complete surprise.
“I did not expect it, but then most things here are like that,” he said. “I will defend against the charges, yes.”
The instigator of the 1987 coup, Mr Rabuka was made party leader in 2016 to go up against Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, the Fiji First leader and instigator of the 2006 coup.
Mr Rabuka is not currently a Member of Parliament, so Sodelpa‘s makeup in parliament will not be affected by the charges. However, this does throw a spanner into the party‘s plans ahead of elections scheduled for later this year, on a date yet to be announced. If convicted and sentenced to more than six months in prison, he would be disqualified as a candidate.
Despite this, Mr Rabuka said he will stay on as Sodelpa leader: “Until conviction, the law states a person convicted cannot hold office.”
The Sodelpa leader is the second member of the opposition party to be taken in by FICAC this parliamentary term, after the MP Ratu Isoa Tikoca was charged and suspended.
He was acquitted last year.