Features | Society | Oceania

Moti On Trial

Susan Merrell looks at the trial of a former Solomon Islands attorney general taking place in Australia and asks whether there’s more than meets the eye to the sexual abuse charges that have been brought against him.

The Jacaranda Tree in front of Brisbane Supreme Court is in glorious full bloom. Its spent purple flowers carpet the forecourt and dance gaily on the spring breeze.

Inside court 13 the mood is more sombre. The accused, Julian Moti QC, a Fijian-born Indian, Australian citizen and former attorney general of the Solomon Islands, sits behind legal counsel. The apple green carpet reflects eerily off the fluorescent lights of the windowless room, giving everyone a jaundiced appearance and adding intensity to Moti’s worried expression.

He has reason to worry. If found guilty of the charges that have been levelled at him, he faces up to 17 years prison. It’s the sixth day of the hearing of Moti’s application for a permanent stay of proceedings.

Moti stands accused of the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl inVanuatu in 1997. It’s the second round of charges emanating from the same matter. Vanuatu courts dealt with the first round in 1999, when Moti was found to have no case to answer.

It’s one of the reasons that the defence is arguing abuse of process. It’s claimed the Australian charges are opportunistic, politically motivated and have little to do with the alleged crime. ‘I’ve had to pay the ultimate price for advocating causes that threaten the white supremacist and colonial agenda in Melanesia,’ Moti says. ‘It must be the plight of my colour that I be presumed shady despite my triumph in [the Vanuatu matter].’

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Moti alleges the real motive behind the new investigation was to remove him from political influence in the Solomon Islands where he was, for a time, attorney general and an impediment to Australia’s political agenda before his illegal deportation late in 2007.

In the witness box is Australian Federal Police (AFP) operative Peter Bond. During Moti’s deportation from the Solomon Islands, Bond was Senior Liaison Officer in Honiara. The defence are seeking to prove his improper involvement in the process – his ‘conniving and colluding.’ It’s a frustrating and drawn out process as Bond seems to have little memory of the time. During one half hour period, I count 15 times that Bond responded with the words ‘I don’t recall’ or something similar. Moti’s nicknamed Bond 007.

That this tale should have a 007 is fitting. The plot is perfect for an Ian Fleming novel. There’s power, international politics, espionage, money, midnight getaways, courtroom drama, and exotic locations.And it begins in the Solomon Islands.

Post colonialism

To the tourist, the Solomon Islands are an unspoilt, idyllic paradise. The pristine tropical waters are a Mecca for the scuba diver and the fishing enthusiast alike. Politically and economically the Islands are less fortunate.

Like many former colonies, the Solomon Islands failed to prosper following independence in 1978. Inexperienced locals filled the power vacuum left by the retreating British, while foreigners controlled the nation’s resources. Corruption reigned, and the fledgling administration failed to provide basic services and desperate poverty prevailed.

After twenty years of independence marked by lacklustre governance, the Islands descended into violence–‘the ethnic tensions’. People from Guadalcanal fought Malaitians in what was a vicious civil war mirroring Rwanda in cause and ferocity.

Uncontrollable, the Solomon Islands were beset by complete lawlessness by 2003 and were in danger of becoming a failed state.

The solution

Influenced by American foreign policy in politically unstable countries like Afghanistan, in 2003 the Australian government heeded the call for help from a desperate Sir Allan Kemakeza, then prime minister of the Solomon Islands.

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Australia agreed to lead a regional peacekeeping force–the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI)–which included a contingent of Australian Federal Police Officers heading up a Participating Police Force (PPF) that would restore law and order and prop up the state’s institutions.

‘A failed state in our immediate region would pose unacceptable security risks to Australia and the region,’ stated the document that would facilitate the intervention – the Australian-authored Townsville Agreement. ‘Severe economic decline has resulted–it is estimated that real gross domestic product [in the Solomon Islands] has shrunk by one-third over the past few years.’

And therein lays the bone of contention between those who support the intervention and those that don’t.

Not only was Australia’s security being threatened–a failed state wasn’t conducive to the pursuit of business interests either. The Gold Ridge gold mine that provided the Solomon Islands with 25% of its GDP, for example, was closed due to civil unrest in 2000. It will reopen this year. It’s 100% Australian owned.

In his affidavit to the courts in the current matter, Moti notes close links between ministers of the former Australian government of JohnHoward and business interests in the Solomon Islands, including the father of a former Australian finance minister and a school friend offormer Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. The suggestion is vested interests.

To Moti the intervention is neo-colonialism: RAMSI is not an assistance mission but an ‘occupation force.’