Suspended Solomon Islands Attorney-General Julian Moti has come out swinging at the country’s Police Commissioner, Shane Castles, after immigration and passport charges brought against him by the Commissioner were dismissed by a Solomon Islands Court.
In a statement last week, Moti said he intended to seek compensation for his "unlawful detention, arrest and custody", and raised questions about Castles’s unusual employment agreement and conditions — which include indemnity against being sued.
The case against Moti was discontinued last week when it was found that valid permits for him to enter, reside and work in the Solomons had been issued before his arrival in the country on a clandestine Papua New Guinea Defence Force Plane in October. At the time, Moti was on the run from Australian authorities after a failed attempt to extradite him from PNG on child sex charges.
Last Tuesday, Moti — together with his co-accused Robson Djokovic and Chris Hapa, who had been charged with aiding Moti’s entry — issued a damning and pointed statement about Castles:
"The people of Solomon Islands will now have to shoulder the burden of paying us for all the damages perpetrated against us by the Police Commissioner and his Australian functionaries who shelter under their immunity from criminal and civil process under our laws. Solomon Islands cannot be allowed to become a place where innocent people are subjected to such degrading and inhumane treatment by our occupying powers."
If the Australian Government was seeking to increase its power in the Solomons, Castles — an Australian Federal Policeman — was a strategic plant. Seconded to the position in 2005, he is officially answerable to the Solomon Islands Government as head of the Royal Solomon Islands Police. However, under an agreement with the Australian Government made in April 2005, Castles remains an employee of the AFP, and his salary, entitlements, accommodation, phone, travel and vehicle are all paid for by Australia.
newmatilda.com has obtained a letter to the Solomons Prime Minister and Cabinet dated 5 April 2005, in which Australian High Commissioner Patrick Cole proposes that Castles remain employed by the AFP "for reasons of simplicity and practicality". The final agreement states that while on secondment he is "responsible solely and completely to the Solomon Islands Authorities", but remains subject to the disciplinary provisions of the AFP Act.
When questioned about Castles’s line of command in a Senate Estimates hearing in October, AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty assured that, "his reporting line to the AFP is really an administrative one. He does not report operationally to the AFP in any way whatsoever".
But Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare disagrees, and has repeatedly accused Castles of being "answerable to Canberra". His conviction only increased on 18 October with the audacious arrest of the Immigration Minister, Peter Shanel, for allegedly lying to the Commissioner about his intention to issue Julian Moti a permit to enter the country. Shanel was charged with perverting the course of justice, misleading a police officer and misleading a public servant.
The arrest of one of his Government Ministers significantly upped the ante for Sogavare, who was already engaged in a diplomatic row with Canberra over his decision to expel High Commissioner Cole in September.
Two days later, on his arrival in Fiji for the Pacific Islands Forum meeting, the Solomons PM told reporters that he had made arrangements for Castles’s privileges to be cut by withdrawing the subsidy from Australia, and putting him on a local wage — in the absence of the power to fire him, it was understood to be the next best move. "To my understanding he’s left to consult his bosses in Canberra," Sogavare said at the time. "I’m not bringing him back. We’ll replace him with someone local or from the region."
However, there was no further mention of the plan, and when Sogavare returned to Honiara on 26 October, Castles was at the airport to greet him. A few days later the Prime Minister would not be drawn on the turnaround, merely saying that Castles would stay in the job for now.
A memo from the Australian High Commission on 23 October, obtained by newmatilda.com, could explain why. "The Australian High Commission considers that unilateral amendment of the terms of the arrangement for the appointment of Mr Castles is not provided for under the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding," the note reads.
In other words, the Solomon Islands Government does not have the power to end the two-year arrangement, effective from 11 April 2005, without the approval of the Australian Government.
Castles was employed with reference to a 1994 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two countries on "development co-operation", which outlines that all decisions be made bilaterally.
The same MOU also indemnifies Castles, and his employers the Australian Government, from any legal action resulting from his position as Police Commissioner, unless both governments "jointly determine that such claims for damages arise from gross negligence or willful misconduct".
This essentially means the Solomon Islands Government must bear all costs should Castles be sued.
It’s little wonder then that, in response to Moti’s threat of legal action last week, Castles challenged the suspended Attorney-General to ‘bring it on.’
He also questioned the validity of Moti’s residential/work permit, saying that police believed it was suspicious and planned to have it "forensically examined" — despite the Director of Immigration confirming that the document was credible and had been issued by his Department.
On Friday, Moti issued a second statement, presumably aimed at tapping into whatever anti-Australian sentiment has been roused by the increasingly emboldened actions of the Police Commissioner:
"That suspicious mind of [Castle’s] is programmed to regard everything that we non-White people say and do as warranting authentication or verification. How dare he question the integrity of both the permits and officials who certified them as genuine and authentic!"
On the same day, the Australian Government officially issued the Solomon Islands Government with an extradition request for their man most wanted. Solomon Islands Cabinet was expected to discuss the request yesterday, but according to Radio New Zealand the meeting has been postponed until today (Wednesday).
Sources say the Solomons Government is likely to question whether the Australian authorities have gathered enough additional substantive information to establish a prima facie case against Moti. The original charges against him, of unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, were thrown out by a Vanuatu magistrate in 1999, who found that he had no case to answer. As Attorney-General, Moti would be able to veto his own extradition, but it remains unclear whether his suspended title is enough to protect him. (He is in the process of appealing the suspension — apparently with the approval of Sogavare.)
One of Moti’s Australian-based lawyers says he was expecting a pre-Christmas extradition attempt all along. He believes the timing is strategic, to minimise scrutiny of what he says has been a highly politicised investigation.
Regardless of whether Australia has a case against Moti (for background to the original charges read two David Marr and Marian Wilkinson articles here and here), there can be no doubt that the Australian authorities’ renewed interest in the investigation was sparked by Moti’s legal influence in the Pacific.
Moti is obviously a sharp legal mind and has a handful of top barristers advising him from Australia — as he did when he faced charges in Vanuatu. It is also clear that he resents "foreign" interference in Solomon Islands affairs — as does his good friend the PM.
But if Australia was concerned about Moti’s influence over the Solomon Islands Government before, the events of the past months have only served to cement the relationship. Moti and his cohort will now be pulling out all legal stops to expose Australia’s true role in the Solomons.
Expect a lot of dirty laundry to be aired — on both sides of the Coral Sea.
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