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Tonga's Attorney-General resigns

Published: 4:33PM Friday April 30, 2010 Source: ONE News

Tonga's Attorney-General has announced his resignation, claiming the government is trying to take control of its judiciary.

Over the past few months Tongan cabinet members have been accused of interfering in the court process, and as a result the kingdom's first independent Attorney-General John Cauchi has quit.

"You might have a situation where very soon there will be a government hand-picked judiciary a la Fiji," says Cauchi.

ONE News obtained confidential documents showing Tonga's cabinet is directly choosing its judges, bypassing constitutional convention.

"I can't manage that sort of duplicitous kind of behaviour in a cabinet," Cauchi says.

One of the steps the government has taken has been to been to reappoint Justice Robert Shuster - who recently sentenced two men to a whipping, a punishment not seen in Tonga for more than 20 years.

Many of his judgements have been controversial. At least a dozen were overturned by the Court of Appeal last year, prompting Tonga's law society to write a letter of complaint.

"Having seen what has happened in Justice Shuster's cases it would be pointless for us to appear before him and try a case before him," says the president of the Law Society, Laki Niu.

The appeal judges criticised Shuster for making errors in law, for excessive sentencing and for relying on his personal experience and observations as a former police officer instead of the evidence.

Shuster's position is fully funded by the Commonwealth but ONE News has learnt that the Tongan government also pay him three times that amount. The Tongan Law Society is concerned Shuster could get the top job.

The government is also not supporting independent prosecutors in upcoming cases over the Princess Ashika tragedy, citing a lack of money.

The Commission of Inquiry into the sinking found that cabinet seriously failed by not getting checks done on the unseaworthy ferry.

"Everyone keeps saying 'I have a clear conscience', well they shouldn't have they're not entitled to have clear consciences on this matter, 74 people mostly Tongans are at the bottom of the sea," says Cauchi.

The Tongan government has slammed claims that the government was not co-operative.

"The government is satisfied that it has permitted unprecedented access to its records throughout the commission's investigation and that its record of co-operation with the commission to establish transparency in this affair, in the face of extreme provocation by the Commission in permitting the introduction of politically motivated irrelevancies in its proceedings, is exemplary," a statement from the Prime Minister's office said.

The report said the disaster was "easily preventable", "scandalous" and that such a maritime disaster could ever have been allowed to occur is a result of "systemic and individual failures".