By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Fiji's parliament on Friday evening suspended the Pacific Island nation's long-serving former Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama for three years for sedition and insulting the president.
Bainimarama ruled Fiji for 16 years after seizing power in a military coup, until a national election in December saw a coalition of parties narrowly vote to install Sitiveni Rabuka as prime minister.
In a speech to parliament on Monday, Bainimarama criticised President Ratu Wiliame Katonivere for supporting the new government and made an appeal to the military which Deputy Prime Minister Biman Prasad said sought to "incite an uprising", and could not go unchallenged.
Fiji has a history of military coups, and its military commander in January warned Rabuka's new government against making "sweeping changes".
Parliament voted on Friday to suspend Bainimarama, the leader of the opposition, from parliament until 2026 and barred him from the parliamentary precinct, as well as ordering him to apologise to the president and public.
"Seditious words were uttered that breached the standing orders," Lynda Tabuya, a member of the Privileges Committee that recommended the suspension, told parliament.
"The highest, the most serious offence that can be committed in a country is treason," said Rabuka in parliament. Rabuka had called for leniency if Bainimarama apologised, but an amendment to reduce the suspension to 18 months was abandoned.
Bainimarama's Fiji First party denied he had incited rebellion in his speech, and pointed to Bainimarama drawing 29% of all votes in Fiji's election.
Fiji has been pivotal to the Pacific island region's response to strategic competition between the United States and China, and will host a meeting of 18 leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum next week. (Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Nick Macfie)