Shades of Grahame Greene – or is it W. Somerset Maugham in the Pacific.
It’s steamy Fiji, drinks at the residence of the French ambassador in celebration of Bastille Day, the scent of frangipani sits heavy in the air, the palms sway gently, men in white linen suits, bronzed-limbed women in cocktail frocks, champagne flowing, a High Court judge with loose lips – a recipe for disaster.
The judge is Anthony Harold Cumberland Thomas Gates, a bright pink Pom in the colonies. He was soon to try one of Fiji’s chiefs, Ratu Inoke Takiveikata, on a charge of incitement to mutiny. It was something to do with stirring-up military people to take over the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva in August 2000.
The trial with Justice Gates and five assessors ran from November 1 to November 24, 2004. The assessors decided in relation to four of the five counts that the Ratu should be acquitted. However, they were over-ruled by the judge who gave a decision convicting the accused on four of the five counts and sentencing him to life imprisonment.
The day after the verdict and sentence the phone rang at the law offices of Apaita Seru in Suva. A fan hummed overhead. Light fluttered on the wooden shutters. It was Donald Ross Brodie on the line and he was put through to Gabriel Wendler, the Sydney barrister who had just acted for Ratu Inoke. Brodie was anxious to share some startling information.
On July 14, he had been at the Bastille Day party at the French Embassy where he encountered Justice Gates. He said the judge told him and his wife during a social conversation that he would ensure that Ratu Inoke would be “put away”.
Later Brodie was to swear an affidavit to that effect, adding:
“My wife was present during the entirety of this conversation [with Gates]. I recall turning to look at my wife’s face as we both looked at each other in amazement at hearing those words by the judge. At this point our conversation was interrupted by a guest who then left in the company of Justice Gates.”
Mrs Margaretha Brodie’s affidavit as to the same event said:
“What I clearly remember of the conversation between my husband and Justice Gates was that Justice Gates said referring to Ratu Inoke that ‘I am going to put him away’. When I heard this I reacted in astonishment and both my husband and I looked at each other after this was said by the judge.”
Amazement and astonishment. This was July 14 and Gates had already decided the outcome of a case he was to try four-and-a-half months later.
After the Brodies’ revelation the Ratu appealed on the ground of bias. Gates did not contradict the allegation directly in his affidavit, but he did in court. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeal (Ellis, Penlington and McPherson) didn’t believe him.
Peter Maiden SC from Sydney did the Ratu’s appeal and the court said it was impressed with the way the Brodies gave their evidence and their response to forthright cross-examination when they were called liars.
Taking everything into consideration the judges were, “satisfied that the judge did say to the Brodies, ‘I will put him away’ as they claim”.
They couldn’t have been more genteel in their pronouncement:
“There was certainly the appearance of a possibility of an absence of an impartial mind on the part of the judge.”
The verdicts of guilty were quashed and a new trial ordered.
Following the allegation of bias, the government of coup leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama (pic) installed Gates as the acting Chief Justice of Fiji – the real Chief Justice, Danial Fatiaki, having been suspended from duty.