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What happened to the former speakers’ case of 20 years ago?

Updated: Aug 26, 2021

Former Speaker of Parliament, Mr. Paul Ren Tari demands to know the real reason behind a Constitutional Application Case that has dragged on for 20 years without resolution.

Supreme Court Case N0. 63/2001 pertains to the unlawful arrests and detaining of three former Speakers of Parliament – Paul Ren Tari, Irene Bongnaim and Harry Iauko which remains unsettled to this day.

The case itself presents a very good case of the problem of impunity within our justice system.

Mr Tari tells Campaign for Justice that unfortunately his two former Deputy Speakers, Mr. Irene Bongnaime and Mr. Harry Iauko have both passed away without getting the justice they deserved after being humiliated by those responsible for the administration of the Justice system.

The petitioners, through their lawyer at that time Mr. Mataskelekele Kalkot of Trans Melanesian Lawyers first filed the case in early June 2001. It was served on all 16 respondents on the 12th and 13th of June 2001. The Attorney General was the 13th Respondent but the main claim was against then Prime Minister Edward Nipake Natapei and other officials of the government including the Police, VMF, Public Prosecutor and others for advising or carrying out the arrests and detention in contravention of the Constitution of the Republic of Vanuatu.

On Application, Mr Justice Roger Coventry in criminal case N0. 20/2001 – PP vs Paul Ren Tari, Irene Bongnaime and Harry Iauko found that the arrests were unlawful. Paragraph two of his judgment read,

“In these circumstances it is clear that the three applicants were Members of Parliament, they were arrested and prosecuted for offences while Parliament was in session. No authorization had been obtained from Parliament. The proceedings were therefore commenced unlawfully, and the arrests were unlawful.”

The Petitioners have since been seeking damages for an amount of thirty million (Vt30,000,000) each for their illegal arrests and detention.

The background and facts leading up the arrests and detention of the Petitioners are recounted below:

· Parliament was summoned to its First Extra Ordinary Session for 2001 on Thursday 03 June 2001. There was no quorum at that sitting so the session was reconvened for Monday 07 May 2001. Following a ruling by then Speaker Paul Ren Tari to suspend certain members of Parliament on the Government side including the Prime Minister, the government side decided to walk out of Parliament. The former Prime Minister then commenced court proceedings against the Speaker (SC. CC. 59/2001) to reinstate himself and others to Parliament.

  • On 12th May 2001, Chief Justice Vincent Lunabek ordered that the Speaker reopen Parliament on Monday 14th May 2001 at 08:30am.

  • On 13th May 2001, Justice Lunabek left the country to attend a Conference in Europe.

  • On the 14th of May 2001 morning Mr. Tari, then Speaker issued a statement that he would not open Parliament as ordered, maintaining that the Courts could not interfere in the work of parliamentary in accordance with the principles of separation of powers.

  • On 14th May 2001, Mr. Natapei applied for Contempt Orders against Mr Tari as Speaker. Mr Justice Regget Marum presided but refused to make any decision for or against the application, saying that the matter should be heard by the CJ when he returned from Europe.

  • On the evening of 14th May then PM Natapei made a formal complaint to the Police to arrest the three leaders.

  • On 15th May 2001 at 2am, just after midnight, Magistrate John Obed Alilee convened court and issued a warrant of arrest to Public Prosecutor (Mrs. Heather Leo) for the arrest of the three Speakers.

  • The Vanuatu Police arrested the trio early on 15th May 2001.

  • Parliament was later reconvened on that day in their absence.

  • Mr. Tari, Bongnaime and Iauko were released on bail at 5pm the same day.

  • By then Parliament had already elected a new Speaker and Deputy Speakers and adjourned to 3pm.

  • On 2nd of July 2021, the Magistrates court committed the trio to stand trial in the Supreme Court. Justice Roger Coventry then found that the arrests were unlawful and awarded costs in favor of the three former speakers.

  • To this day the Government has never paid any money to the three former leaders for their wrongful arrests.

Civil case 63/2001 (Constitutional Application) has never been heard by the Supreme Court as lawyers involved decided to have an out of court settlement. The arrangement has never come to pass. It is clear the position of the State Law Office, as a respondent became grossly compromised and conflicted.

The state of impunity prevalent in this case stems from the fact that all the main sectors of our legal system were involved in the wrongful arrests; from the courts to the Public Prosecutor, the State Law Office, lawyers involved in the case and the Enforcement agencies - Police and VMF. It was also a clear conspiracy case which the Police refused to be involved in because they were directly implicated.

The importance of upholding the rule of law must always be maintained at its highest level and those institutions responsible for the administration of justice must always strive to remain neutral and impartial while carrying out their duties.

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