The Chinese developers who caused an environmental disaster on an idyllic Fijian island are set to be judged in local court later this month, as the world watches to see if the country will “walk the walk” on its stance against environmental vandals. 

Freesoul Real Estate is awaiting a ruling after ripping out part of a reef on Malolo Island, dumping waste, blocking other landowners and disturbing traditional fisheries – all before gaining legal approvals and despite two court orders to stop work.

The damage was in preparation for a planned 370-bure resort and casino on the island – which would have been Fiji’s largest. It was stopped after Newsroom revealed the Chinese-backed developers had caused serious environmental damage.

The developers were subsequently charged with two counts of undertaking unauthorised development and another of failing to comply with a prohibition notice, charges they have been fighting in the Suva Magistrates Court.

The judgment date, originally down for March 12, has been pushed out to March 30, with no explanation given. There has been surprise expressed that the case ended up in the Magistrates Court, which carries much lighter penalties than the country’s High Court. 

Freesoul’s environmental approval was revoked after the story gained international attention following the arrest of Newsroom journalists Melanie Reid and Mark Jennings in April 2019. The pair were detained by police after they went to the Freesoul office in Suva to put questions to then-director Dickson Peng – and were freed the next day only after Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama intervened.

“On March the 30th I will be waiting, with the world, to see if Fiji and its courts are willing to take a stance against Freesoul and anyone thinking they can wreck a very special part of the world.”

After Reid and Jennings were released, Bainimarama issued a personal apology, in which he said the conduct of Freesoul Real Estate had been “deeply concerning” for some time. He also promised to consider urgently introducing a law to permanently ban companies that “blatantly disregard our environmental laws and protections”.

Newsroom understands no such law has been tabled, let alone introduced. 

Australian surfer Navrin Fox, who owns a stake in a 99-year lease on land adjacent to the failed resort, says the world is watching to see if Fiji will “walk the walk”.

“The battle we’ve found ourselves in has become a landmark case for Fiji and its Pacific neighbours, the world is watching to see if Mr Bainimarama’s Public Prosecutions Office and courts will uphold his strong stance against environmental vandals.”

Fox says while he applauds Fiji’s government for its “inspiring” public stance on protecting their environment, Freesoul has been allowed to destroy a reef right in Fiji’s backyard with no government approvals.

“We are very much concerned with the ongoing delays in the delivery of the judgment. On March the 30th I will be waiting, with the world, to see if Fiji and its courts are willing to take a stance against Freesoul and anyone thinking they can wreck a very special part of the world.”

In the event that Freesoul’s prosecution is upheld, the owners of the adjoining land are planning to seek damages as part of the prosecution case, Fox says. This, with class actions from investors, mean there is “plenty more legal grief coming the way of Freesoul and its directors”.

Two groups of about 200 investors – mostly from mainland China – are more than $35 million out of pocket after the resort and casino came to a halt. 

Newsroom reported late last year that those investors are launching class action lawsuits against the developer after paying up-front for units and never seeing their money again.

Many believe the developers never intended to go ahead with the project given their money seemingly never left China, and some have described it as a “scam”. 

The maximum penalty in the Magistrates Court amounts to F$50,000 (approximately NZ$35,000), whereas the High Court can carry up to a $750,000 (roughly NZ$550,000) fine or 10 years in prison.

Cass Mason is Newsroom's news director.

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