Cops & Robbers

Despite everything else that’s happened throughout Vanuatu’s brief and stormy history, the courts have stood up as fair and authoritative arbiters of the law. Through decades of squabbling and sometimes disturbing rancour, the court’s right and ability to rule has been axiomatic.

And that was why, in the latter part of 2015, former prime minister Moana Carcasses emerged from the court that had just convicted him of bribery and corruption, and told the ABC’s Liam Fox that he disagreed with the result, but he would respect it. He reiterated that sentiment later that day in a speech to government supporters outside the PMO.

Before the weekend was over, of course, other convicted members conspired to obstruct justice. Then-Speaker Marcellino Pipite, who had also been convicted, was Acting President at the moment. He seized the opportunity to exercise presidential powers and pardon himself and most of the others.

Citing the fear and uncertainty that surrounded the trial, he told a press conference, “no one must touch this [decision] because it could disturb peace in this country.”

On his return, President Baldwin Lonsdale did more than touch it. He reversed it.

And everyone went back to court. The convictions were appealed, the pardons were appealed, and the revocation was appealed. When the dust finally settled, the MPs were in jail. With over half the government behind bars, the President decided to dissolve parliament and hand the matter back to the electorate.

Over decades of parliamentary ruckus, FUBAR administrations and often dangerous division within Police ranks, the courts have remained aloof, but engaged. Everyone, it seems, recognises they need to have a ref on the field—even if only to know who’s winning.

The courts remain intact today, largely due to the imperturbable and generally unmovable Chief Justice Vincent Lunabek, who has served his country longer and better than most. His anodyne presence has allowed him to weather countless storms.

Over the course of decades, consecutive governments have targeted office holders and the offices they occupy, de-clawing them and often rendering them inert in the process. The Ombudsman is now effectively a non-entity. The Auditor General, despite numerous attempts, has never properly been stood up. Finance has seen countless gifted individuals run out or coopted. The telecommunications regulator has been put in a box. The boards of many state-run entities have been coopted.

The Vanuatu Police have experienced the worst storms of all. Tempers never entirely subsided since an armed standoff between Police and our paramilitary Mobile Force in 2002. Accusations of corruption, dissension and even mutiny are peppered throughout its rancorous history. In September 2014, things had reached such a pass that Prime Minister Joe Natuman intervened personally, and instructed the Commissioner to “stop investigations” into mutiny.

He was later charged with, and plead guilty to, perverting the course of justice. Responsibility for the police force was subsequently moved from the Prime Minister to the Minister of Internal Affairs.

To his credit, Natuman likely knew he was overstepping. He didn’t deny what he’d done, and as far as I know he still maintains that he did what was necessary to end the rot within police ranks. He knew what he was doing, and paid the political price.

His conviction was the result of just one of what’s become a spate of criminal investigations. The embattled general manager of the Vanuatu National Provident Fund was investigated first by the Ombudsman, and later charged by Police. Last year, both Prime Minister Charlot Salwai and Opposition Leader Ishmael Kalsakau were the subject of criminal complaints.

Recently, Opposition Leader Ralph Regenvanu cited a long list of complaints, many of them alleging criminal activity, against government members.

Along with 3 other MPs, Salwai will go to trial on bribery and corruption charges in November. He also faces a separate charge of perjury. There’s no sign whether or not an investigation against Kalsakau, who is now minister responsible for police, is ongoing.

Shortly after being replaced as minister for Infrastructure and Public Utilities, Jotham Napat expressed his fears that there was criminal corruption going on inside his former ministry. Taking the bull by the horns, current minister Jay Ngwele immediately announced criminal investigation, not into his own doings, but projects championed by his predecessor.

Earlier this week, the Daily Post’s front page featured a troubling photograph: Ngwele standing proudly beside a team of smiling CID officers.

Minister Ngwele standing with senior police inspectors and jailed former Public Works Director Samuel Namuri.- Vanuatu Daily Post

I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it to some who are currently involved in these tit for tat criminal investigations: This is not going to end well. When politicians start playing cops and robbers, they’re headed down a slippery slope.

Frankly, I’m shocked that those CID officers, whom I know to be people of integrity, would allow themselves to participate in a photograph that many will see as a political stunt. I suspect—I hope—they didn’t realise the impression it would create.

There is unequivocal evidence to suggest that more than one past minister has meddled directly in police operations. Most members of the Force do their level best to keep their distance, and some have expressed their discomfort off the record.

There is no evidence to suggest that the current minister has done so.

But the mere fact that the person who made the criminal complaint concerning another politician is now minister responsible for police has to be troubling. Senior officers may not be given even a hint of instruction, but might have briefed him on the evidence submitted to the Public Prosecutor, and whether they mean to do it or not, they’ll be sensitive to the slightest eyebrow twitch.

And who among them would have the courage to interrogate their own minister, search his documents, or perform any of the other investigative steps necessary to determine whether the complaint against him has merit? Who would dare to bring charges if it did?

Politicising prosecution is a dangerous game. If one party is unambiguously clean, then prosecuting the other side is a one-and-done proposition. But if both sides engage in questionable practices, and have done so for years, prosecuting them becomes a descent into disorder, where the ‘force’ part of Police Force ultimately becomes the dominant factor.

But here’s the thing: People broke the law. Other stand accused right now. The Public Prosecutor would not proceed if he didn’t think that a crime had been committed. The courts, as I stated from the start, can be trusted to administer justice.

Now that they’ve begun, things will have to play themselves out. We can trust the result. But can we trust politicians not to abuse that trust?

For politicians to directly involve themselves in these processes is untoward. To use them for political advantage is a tactic fraught with risk. The danger of politicising prosecution, and therefore the police, is real. This is precisely why we have Commissions of Inquiry. There has to be a discrete distance between politics and prosecution.

And right now in Vanuatu, that distance is closing.