New Zealand PM John Key to visit Fiji as coup legacy lingers

Mr John Key will be the first New Zealand leader to visit Fiji in a decade.
Mr John Key will be the first New Zealand leader to visit Fiji in a decade. PHOTO: REUTERS

WELLINGTON (AFP) - Prime Minister John Key will this week become the first New Zealand leader to visit Fiji in a decade, saying the military coup that soured Wellington-Suva relations for years is "ancient history".

But human rights groups say worrying legacies of dictatorship remain in the Pacific island nation, despite elections in 2014 that resulted in a landslide win for coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama.

"Fiji still has a long way to go to improve its human rights record," Amnesty International's New Zealand executive director Grant Bayldon told AFP.

"Specifically, the government continues to show itself to be allergic to almost any form of criticism."

New Zealand strongly denounced Fiji when Bainimarama seized power in 2006 and ruled by decree until the September 2014 election.

Since the vote, Fiji's government has been accused of trying to muzzle the press and opposition lawmakers, as well covering up police brutality.

But Key said Bainimarama's government was "doing quite well" and any shortcomings should not prevent him from making the two-day visit beginning early Thursday (June 9).

"I'm not saying it's absolutely perfect, but there are probably quite a few countries that have a form of democracy we wouldn't see as perfect," he told reporters Tuesday.

Key said the time was right to visit Fiji after New Zealand played a major part in helping the country recover from super cyclone Winston, which killed 44 people in February.

The military remains a powerful force in Fijian society and pioneering police chief Ben Groenewald resigned last year, accusing it of hampering an investigation into police brutality.

The opposition is also crying foul after prominent lawmaker Tupou Draunidalo was suspended from parliament for two years over a minor verbal spat with the government-appointed speaker.

Even the travelling New Zealand media pack accompanying Key has been affected by the coup's legacy, with respected TVNZ reporter Barbara Dreaver unable to make the trip.

In 2008, Dreaver was locked up for a night and blacklisted after Bainimarama's regime took offence to her reporting. She has been unable to visit Fiji since.

"Journalists should not be banned in any democratic country," Dreaver wrote on the TVNZ website.

"The fact that the New Zealand delegation headed by the Prime Minister (Key) cannot include the national broadcaster's Pacific correspondent is a disgrace."