The Chinese developers who caused an environmental disaster on an idyllic Fijian island have been found guilty on two counts of undertaking unauthorised developments in relation to a planned 370-bure resort and casino. 

The Suva Magistrates Court delivered its verdict against Freesoul Real Estate today, after the ruling date was pushed out twice with no explanation. 

While found guilty on the two counts, the developers were acquitted of a third count of failure to comply with a prohibition notice, local media reported. 

The ruling comes after the company ripped 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 judgment date, originally down for March 12, was first pushed out to March 30, then April 9. In Fiji there had been surprise that the case ended up in the Magistrates Court, which carries much lighter penalties than the country’s High Court. 

Sentencing has been set for May 25.

Freesoul’s environmental approval was revoked after the story gained international attention following the arrest of Newsroom journalists Melanie Reid and Mark Jennings in April 2019.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. They were freed the next day after Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama intervened.

When 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. 

Meanwhile, 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 not seeing their money again.

Cass Mason is Newsroom's news director.

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