TSI: JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED- THE BECHEDEMER SAGA

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JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED- THE BECHEDEMER SAGA

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TRANSPARENCY Solomon Islands (TSI) notes the judiciary is active and alive dealing with long delayed cases related to how public positions were abused, and how the mechanisms and institutions of integrity and publicly funded institutions of the government have failed miserably as the first line of defense for the citizens of this country when it comes to accessing justice. In the case of Dr. Reginald Aipia, the resultant repercussion has backfired on the government and will cost the taxpayers. But then there are other cases like that of Mr Satu who is still waiting for the government to pay the amounts awarded to him by the court, a case dealing with marine resources as well.  The question is, is the government going to pay what the court has ordered or are the people going to assume that the law does not apply to the government?

The case of private businessman Dr. Reginald Aipia suing the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and police for arresting him in 2017, without legal basis finally came to a closure with court ruling in favor of Dr. Reginald Aipia-the claimant. The High Court ruled that the police and MFMR were guilty of unlawful arrest, malicious prosecution, and false imprisonment of Aipia, and unlawful detention of Apia’s bechedemer. The question is under whose directive were the police and the officials of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, responding to when they arrested Dr. Apia knowing very well it could cost the taxpayers of Solomon Islands. Were they influenced by the foreigners they licensed to export bechedemer for perks paid to them? Is there an outside oligarchy influencing the Ministry or is it money pure money in the hands of top-ranking officials?  No one will know without detailed independent investigation of the conduct of public officials in the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources.

Transparency Solomon Islands holds the view that had the responsible public officers (Permanent Secretary and Director of MFMR) did the right thing required by the law of Solomon Islands, they would not have instructed the police to arrest Aipia unlawfully in the first place, but deal with the matter administratively. Their illegal action will now cost the taxpayers $56 million, money that the government does not have or if it does could have built a new hospital for Choiseul Province replacing the delipidated Taro hospital for example.

The case is a clear example of how corruption and corrupt conduct, practiced by few public officials executing their duties Rambo-style, without due diligence costs the taxpayers. The local businessman was a victim of the scramble for sea-cucumber by Asian businessmen who are dominant in the industry, hindering national/indigenous business interest a level playing field to be players in the commercialization and export of their marine resources. It goes without saying that corruption denied interested Solomon Islanders, especially those from Malaita Outer Island the opportunity, in the trade of bechedemer. It not only deprives them of equitable benefits from the exploitation of their marine resources but is really depriving the Solomon Government the accrued benefits due to it, from this lucrative marine resource market.

The history of bechedemer trading in Solomon Islands has over the years raise many controversial issues directly on the integrity of the Ministry of Fisheries and the law keepers of this country regarding their questionable deals and conduct. In year 2012 a consignment of seized sea-cucumber harvested by resource owners was exported and worth more than $50 million. From this amount only $13 million was reported to have been paid to Solomon Islands. It was alleged that the $13 million mysteriously vanished as well and not paid into the consolidated fund and none still to Lord Howe people who owned the marine product. It was further rumored that the $13 million was shared by a few members of parliament.  The Police should be investigating this to separate what is rumor and what is truth and ascertain exactly what happen to the $13 million.

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Again, in year 2017 a huge consignment of bechedemer was seized from three separate Chinese residences in Honiara but was later return to the Chinese men to export.  It was again alleged that not a single cent was remitted back into the country into the consolidated fund. These resources were exported but no revenues were returned back to the country, or no information on how much was paid to the consolidated fund.  The corruption involve in the trading of sea-cucumber is more than what meets the eye. Resource or customary owners of these customary resources were robbed of the benefits of the exploitation of their resources, the citizens and the government were denied the millions of dollars in revenues the country deserved from this sea-cucumber. It is obvious that an independent investigation is required to look into what is really going on in the trade of bechedemer and ascertain how much money the country is being denied or robbed off by the unscrupulous so-called investors in this marine product.

The plight of Ontong Java people in the Malaita Outer Islands is a national issue that the government is not taking serious action to deal with. Not only the threat of sea-level rise and environmental deterioration but food shortage and lack of regular shipping services contributed more to the misery on the lives of the people there. Their only means of livelihood is marine resources.  It is gross injustice to the people of Ontong Java to deny them and their own people the license to export their marine product, to confiscate their sea-cucumber, exported without a single cent given back to them.

Instead of encouraging the farming of bechedemer to minimize harvesting from the wild, to re-populate the lagoon something that Dr. Aipia’s attempts he was arrested.  It just does not make any sense at all that the ministry that should be helping him, encouraging him etc. got him arrested. Farming of sea-cucumber is done in PNG and MOI is an ideal place to do that. This is a clear case of public officers both in MFMR and the police not adhering to their professionalism but being pulled by the nose by holders of export license for bechedemer.

There are many other who are in the similar situation, in the logging sector, mines and minerals, land allocation and the list goes on but they are denied justice, because they cannot afford it.  Access to justice is denied to every Solomon Islanders that needs it when it comes to the exploitation of their customary resources and properties.  They do not have the finances that Dr. Aipia may have in order to get himself heard in court. IN SOLOMON ISLANDS ACCESS TO JUSTICE IS THE BIGGEST PROBLEM. IT IS TOO EXPENSIVE AND UNAFFORDABLE EXCEPT FOR THE RICH.  The lawyers are expensive, the court fees are expensive, and the Public Solicitor is so poorly resourced in terms of lawyers, and resources to act as the first defense of the people of this country when it comes to accessing justice.  It is the same for the Ombudsman’s Office, and other institutions of integrity. Transparency Solomon Islands accepts the observation by some international organisation, foreign governments etc. as well as local interest that despite our advocacy for action against corruption, corruption continues to increase. It will not stop us from our advocacy for fight against corruption for corruption kills and is the biggest Tsunami affecting Solomon Islands.  It is TSI’s view that whilst citizens can advocate for the fight against corruption, until citizens can access the courts, lawyers, institutions of integrity properly resourced especially the Public Solicitor’s Office those in position of power will continue to abuse and misuse the people’s entrusted power for their own gain and get away with it.  Why is that so? Because they know people cannot afford nor do they have the means to access justice and hold power to account. THE JUSTICE SYSTEM OF SOLOMON ISLANDS IS ONLY AFFORDABLE TO THE RICH-NOT DEMOCRATIC AT ALL. TOO EXPENSIVE FOR THE ORDINARY SOLOMON ISLANDER.

Transparency Solomon Islands again calls for the reform of the fees or cost of accessing justice and the adequately resourcing of the Public Solicitor’s Office.

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