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Justice denied in assault case

(PFF/IFEX) - 6 July 2011 - A minimal fine given to a Vanuatu cabinet minister who entered a guilty plea for his part in an assault on "Daily Post" publisher Marc Neil-Jones represents a clear victory for bush justice over the rule of law, says regional media monitoring group the Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF).

Government minister Harry Iauko was fined the local equivalent of US$150 late last week after he entered a guilty plea to aiding and abetting a 4 March assault on Neil-Jones at the "Daily Post" premises. Under Vanuatu law the applicable sentence for an assault where no permanent damage is caused to the victim is a fine or prison term of no less than 12 months. Seven other men sentenced along with Iauko received fines of up to US$1,000 for their roles in the group attack.

"PFF joins those in Vanuatu and globally who condemn the clear message from this sentence - that it's OK for high level leaders of Vanuatu to lead mobs into newsrooms and bash up people whose job is to keep the public informed - and that justice can be turned on its head to keep the powerful in power," says PFF acting chair Monica Miller.

"After months of uncertainty and concerns over an interference with due process, the Vanuatu justice system has delivered a verdict which shows that Neil-Jones and media colleagues had every right to be worried that justice would not be served," says Miller, "and we are very concerned over comments by Deputy Prime Minister Ham Lini to a New Zealand journalist, noting he felt the media had 'exaggerated' the case, which wasn't serious as no one had died. Does a journalist have to die before media freedom and the conduct of leaders is taken seriously?"

"It's especially disturbing that prosecutors dropped charges of unlawful assembly, unlawful entry and criminal trespass against the minister simply because he entered a not guilty plea. Others in his group pleaded guilty to the same charges, so surely this provided clear grounds for the prosecution's case to be heard."

"Again, we raise the issue of equality before the law. If the reverse had happened and Minister Iauko had been assaulted by the 'Daily Post' publisher, it is certain that Neil-Jones would not be dealt a US$150 fine and have other charges for which his accomplices had already entered guilty pleas withdrawn for no compelling reason."

Miller says the matter should not rest. "Vanuatu's Prime Minister should know that this issue has cost him and his cabinet a huge amount of credibility. This isn't just about a Vanuatu citizen being denied justice by his own nation's legal system. This sentence tells Vanuatu's people and all of us that a rule of law which exists for all people can bow down to the rule of thuggery. It's not an attractive look for any government and we urge the leadership and relevant tribunal bodies in Vanuatu to follow through on this case as PFF intends to bring this matter before the Office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner."

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