PASSPORT SALE DEBATE CONTINUES IN MARSHALL ISLANDS

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MAJURO, Marshall Islands (October 3, 1997 - Marshall Islands Journal)--- Despite claims that the Marshall Islands suspended its passport sales to Asians last year, a cabinet minister said in the Nitijela (parliament) that the sales continue and that money from the sales is going into the personal bank accounts of those involved in the sales.

In an effort to shut off the apparently continuing sales program, a leading government MP introduced legislation to ban all future sales of Marshallese citizenship.

Criticism of Marshall Islands passport sales came from an unexpected source during a nationally broadcast session of the Nitijela when government minister Litokwa Tomeing asserted that the controversial government passport sales program has not been stopped as claimed.

Tomeing is the government's point man on the nuclear waste storage project the Marshalls is pursuing.

"We heard that the sale of passports ceased one year ago, but some people are still selling passports," he said.

"The money generated from the sale of passports is for the public and people deserve to benefit from this revenue. But the people who are still selling passports are putting this money into their personal savings," Tomeing said.

"These people should be prosecuted and punished," he added.

The cabinet minister did not, however, name any names.

Tomeing's allegations were countered by Foreign Minister Phillip Muller who said emphatically that "not one passport has been sold since a year ago August," and urged his Nitijela colleagues to stop "nit-picking" on small issues like passports since the nation is facing many more serious challenges that need to be addressed by the leaders.

"I said it during the August session, I said it again in January, I said it at the beginning of this session and once again I'm saying it that after the Cabinet halted the sale of passports one year ago, not one passport has been sold since," Muller told the Nitijela.

Senator Ataji Balos, the chairman of the parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a bill to amend the citizenship act that would repeal the government's authority to sell passports, banning all future sales.

The government has been strongly and repeatedly criticized and questioned by senators for the passport sales program during the current session of the parliament.

In reply to demands for information about the program, government leaders confirmed last week that the Marshalls had earned about $10 million from sales of passports over the past two years, money that went for funding government payrolls, subsidizing the operations of Air Marshall Islands and other government projects.

The passport sales have been primarily to nationals of the People's Republic of China.

Muller said that late last year the Cabinet recognized the problems with administration of the passport program and decided to halt sales.

The U.S., which had repeatedly raised concerns about the program, is satisfied with the full explanation the government has provided, and "now they don't have any more problems with it," he told the parliament.

A treaty with the U.S., while allowing Marshall Islanders visa-free access to America, explicitly bars access to the U.S. to naturalized citizens who purchased passports for the purpose of entering the U.S.

The Foreign Minister said he wanted to clear up the passport issue because the Nitijela has been focusing on it for a long time, despite the fact that "we have other issues which are more important than passports."

Muller, who just recently returned from the South Pacific Forum in the Cook Islands, said that issues of climate change, sea level rise, and economic development, among others, are issues that need attention from the Nitijela.

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail: Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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