Justice delayed, justice denied on Kiritimati

  • 27/04/2016
Joao Goncalves (Reuters)
Joao Goncalves (Reuters)

On Kiritimati, a far-flung outpost of the Republic of Kiribati, lies a rudimentary prison which houses 50 men, one woman and her baby.

One of the prisoners is Joao Goncalves, a surfer and hotel owner from the Portuguese town of Peniche.

He limped into Kiritimati Island's vast lagoon in the central Pacific Ocean earlier this year, after his yacht was damaged by storms while sailing from Tahiti.

But his relief at reaching land was short-lived.

Goncalves' yacht was raided by police who found a small quantity of marijuana and $20,000 that had not been declared on his customs form.

He was locked up in prison on one of the world's most remote islands for more than three weeks, his boat impounded and access to his funds and property restricted.

Months later, Goncalves, 41, remains trapped in a judicial limbo that is all too common on isolated and poor islands across the Pacific, where a lack of lawyers and judges is hindering access to legal representation and preventing timely processing of cases for both visitors and locals alike.

"The medicine I am carrying, part of it is the cannabis. It's all documented, I've got all the papers from the Portuguese Government. It's supplied to me by the Portuguese Government, it's not recreational drugs, it's part of the treatment that I do," Goncalves said.

"But here, I am in the hands of the police so there is nobody who can set me free or to go through my evidence and make a judgement of it. So, I need to get a place where I can be judged. All I want at this moment is to be judged, and it's impossible."

Authorities on the island did not allow filming in the prison quarters, where many prisoners complain of poor living conditions.

Goncalves also spoke about flooding caused by months of El Nino rains.

"We had water almost to the knees, people were eating, actually, rice with raw fish, but raw fish, I say raw fish cut in pieces left in the sun in the morning and they will give it to you and people were just biting through it. This, with the water flooding everything, people were throwing the rest of the food onto the floor. Rats, centipedes, sleeping in the same bed with 53 other people," he said.

The next High Court hearing in Kiritimati is due, perhaps, in October so Goncalves is trying to get his case moved to the capital Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati.

Tarawa lies nearly 3,300km to the west - about three weeks by boat.

No lawyers are based on the island and the High Court only comes once or twice a year to clear a backlog of the most serious cases, bringing a public lawyer for defendants who can't afford their own.

Other cases are heard in a local magistrates court, where defendants usually appear without any kind of legal representation at all.

Katokiau Maruai, a 35-year-old father of three, was charged with three domestic violence-related offences late last year, the first time he has been in trouble with the law.

He received a seven-year prison sentence from the local magistrate which he hopes will be cut to under five years with good behaviour, but he has legal representation.

Mikarite Temari is the Minister of Line and Phoenix Islands Development, administering a string of atolls and low lying islands scattered along the Equator.

"At the moment in our new government, we are going to establish an office for a lawyer here. We are working on it, maybe this year or next year, there'll be a lawyer, sitting down here every day. Anybody (who) wants to see them, there is an office for a lawyer," he said.

Across the 33 islands of Kiribati, there is just one lawyer for every 12,593 persons, according to a 2011 survey by the South Pacific Lawyers Association. That compares with one lawyer for every 351 in Australia or 418 in the United Kingdom.