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  • Vanuatu
  • Anita Jowitt

At the beginning of 2003 Vanuatu was governed by a coalition of the Vanua'aku Party ( VP), headed by the prime minister, Edward Natapei, and the Union of Moderate Parties ( UMP), headed by the deputy prime minister, Serge Vohor. Politics in Vanuatu were dominated by events in three main areas during that year: the management of the Vanuatu Commodities Marketing Board ( VCMB); the management of the Vanuatu Maritime Authority ( VMA); and the fortunes of Barak Sope, the former prime minister who was jailed for forgery in 2002. These events generated increasing dissatisfaction with the Union of Moderate Parties as a governing party and contributed to another change of national government in December 2003.

Before considering these events, three postscripts to the police commissioner affair, which dominated politics in 2002 , should be mentioned. To briefly recap, problems arose over appointments to the post of police [End Page 401] commissioner that were improperly made. While the first such appointment was challenged peacefully in court, the second appointment, in mid-2002 , resulted in police arresting that commissioner and fourteen high-ranking officials who were thought to have been involved in the appointment. In reaction to this, a number of armed Vanuatu Military Force officers came to the police station to arrest these police, and an armed standoff ensued. Rumors that a government-funded militia had also been formed gave rise to fears of another armed faction. This militia was thought to be made up of young men from Tanna, a group blamed, justifiably or not, for much violence and crime in Vanuatu. By the end of the year, tensions between the Vanuatu Military Force and the police force had eased, and four high-ranking police officers involved in the arrests of the officials had been given two-year suspended sentences for inciting mutiny, mutiny, kidnapping, and false imprisonment.

The first postscript to that story isthe appointment of Robert Diniro Obed as police commissioner in February 2003. He remained stable in that position throughout the year. Alarge AusAID-funded project aimed at strengthening police capacity and restructuring the Vanuatu Police Force has also been implemented and will contribute to stability and increased efficiency in the police force. The second postscript involves the four police officers who had been given suspended sentences for their involvement in events of 2002. The prosecutor appealed their sentences "on the basis that the sentences imposed on the four men were manifestly inadequate." The Court of Appeal upheld the appeal on the grounds that "there can never be any justification for anyone in a free and democratic society taking the law into their own hands. After their years of service, training and discipline in the Police, each of these men knew that they were bending the rules. There is nothing more corrosive or damaging in society than that sort of behaviour by police officers" (Public Prosecutor v Simon 2003 ). The third postscript is that the government reportedly made a payment of over 1 million vatu to a "civilian backup force" made up of men from Tanna, which had briefly been formed during the instability of August 2002 ( VDP, 9 Jan 2003 ). Whether members of this group were armed at any point, or still have arms, is not known.

The fortunes of Barak Sope in 2003 are less a postscript on events of 2002 than the unfolding of another chapter in this prominent politician's career. The leader of the Melanesian Progressive Party ( MPP) was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for forging government guarantees in mid-2002. As the result of this conviction Sope lost his seat in Parliament. In November 2002 Sope was pardoned by the president and immediately made known his intention to challenge the loss of his parliamentary seat in court. In February 2003 the Supreme Court heard the case and rejected Sope's challenge. Although the court acknowledged that a presidential pardon has the effect of making "the offender a new man," the wording of the Members of Parliament (Vacation of Seats) Act [Cap 174 ] were taken into account. Under [End Page 402] that act, once a member of Parliament is convicted and sentenced to at least two-year imprisonment, his or her seat...


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