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  • Vanuatu
  • Anita Jowitt (bio)

The first big story in Vanuatu in 2007 was the arrest, in January, of Peter Foster for illegal entry into Vanuatu. A high profile “conman,” Foster was facing trial in Fiji for fraud-related charges. He escaped from Fiji on board the Retriever 1, which dropped him off on Efate on 8 January. Australian Customs officials and Australian Federal Police soon became involved in the investigation, as they had concerns that the Retriever 1 was being used to smuggle drugs and guns (Australian, 19 Jan 2007). In January Foster was sentenced to six weeks imprisonment for the illegal entry and required to pay a fine. After three weeks in jail he left the country for Australia, where he went on to stand trial for fraud involving the Federated States of Micronesia. The crew of the Retriever 1 was not so lucky. The vessel was impounded in Port Vila and various weapons seized. Ultimately the only charge that resulted in a conviction was one against the skipper, Kell Walker. He had been charged with making a threat to kill another person, a threat that was made in the context of trying to extort money in a salvage scam (Public Prosecutor v Walker [2007] vusc 61). Walker was sentenced to two years imprisonment, a sentence that was upheld on appeal.

Much more serious were the events of March, when communities from Tanna and Ambrym living in Port Vila had a violent confrontation. Rumors had circulated that some men from Ambrym had supplied some men from Tanna with sorcery, and that these Tannese men were using black magic techniques to cause deaths. The catalyst for the confrontation was the death of the wife of a prominent pastor. On the morning of 3 March, members of the communities clashed violently in the Tagabe area. Participants were armed with knives, axes, iron bars, and clubs. Police, probably scared by the mobs, did not respond, and in this initial confrontation one Tannese man was killed. This led to a mob from Tanna rampaging through the Anabrou area. The mob targeted houses owned by people from Ambrym, burning them to the ground. By the end of the day, two more men, both from Ambyrm, were dead and a number of people hospitalized. Some [End Page 475] families were also left homeless. On 4 March a state of emergency was declared. Under this state of emergency, which lasted for a fortnight, no public assemblies other than church services were permitted and police powers of detention were extended. Police were also authorized to carry arms. More than one hundred people involved in the incident were arrested or detained. The shocked Port Vila community remained calm, turning their attention to supporting the families who had lost their houses.

Little action has been taken since the incident. A commission of inquiry was established to investigate and report on the causes of the violence. In September the commission presented its report to the Minister of Justice and also made an executive summary of the report available to the public. The findings placed a lot of the blame for the incident on failures on the part of the police force. While the terms of reference stated that it was a public inquiry, the Minister of Justice ordered the media to stop publishing the findings. The full report has never been made public, which has raised suspicion that it is critical of the government. There have been no apparent or visible changes in the police following the report. A number of people were charged with offenses following their actions on 3 March, but none of these cases have come to trial yet.

Rumors of problems within the governing coalition led by Ham Lini of the National United Party (nup) were circulating from the beginning of the year. The coalition had survived five motions of no confidence since it was established in December 2004, and numerous cabinet reshuffles have taken place. Despite the rumors no significant changes were made until early May. These changes were precipitated by the Luganville Municipal Council (lmc) elections, which took place at the end of April. The campaign period itself was fairly quiet, marred only by...