SENATOR CHARGED WITH ATTEMPTING TO SMUGGLE SIX BETEL NUTS INTO

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POHNPEI

By Pamela Joseph

PALIKIR, Pohnpei (October 29 - November 11, 1998 - The Island Tribune)---Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) Senator Peter Christian has been charged, in a criminal complaint, with violating the nation's custom and quarantine laws, and obstructing governmental operations.

The charges, which are based on the report of two quarantine officers, stem from an incident in which Christian retrieved betel nuts from quarantine inspectors at the Pohnpei International Airport on August 11, 1998. At the time, Christian and several other officials were returning from a trip to Yap and Palau.

The charges bring to surface some little known regulations that may make it illegal to bring betel nuts into Pohnpei, even from other FSM States.

According to the criminal complaint, on August 11, 1998, Quarantine Inspectors Brens Solomon and Kim Alex took a bag of betel nuts from Pohnpei State Senator Fernando Scaliem. As Solomon and Alex recited regulations to Scaliem, Christian walked over and retrieved the bag of betel nuts from the inspectors and distributed the betel nuts to several other returning passengers. As Christian distributed the betel nuts, the complaint asserts, he made comments "subjecting the inspectors to ridicule and discouraging other passengers from submitting to the proper authority of the inspectors." Because of the Senator's actions, the complaint further alleged, other passengers refused to surrender their betel nuts to the quarantine inspectors.

In an interview on Friday, October 23, 1998, Christian maintained that the bag of betel nuts belonged to him, and not Scaliem. There were about six betel nuts left, which he gave to other passengers in the baggage claim area, he added. Christian said he was informed that the FSM is seeking a $2,000 fine, three years probation, and 80 hours of service. "For six betel nuts, I have to pay all this?" he questioned.

Christian said that in the past, when he has taken betel nuts to Palau, inspectors there waived all quarantine requirements. "I expected the same courtesy from Pohnpei," he asserted. He contends that he did not know of any regulation prohibiting the importation of betel nuts from Palau. "I feel that if there is a regulation, they (Customs) should let people know about it, and keep reminding people," said Christian.

On October 5, 1998, Christian pled not guilty at an arraignment held before the FSM Supreme Court. "I want this case to go to trial, so we can find out what is going on here," Christian contended. He further stated that the regularity of enforcement is inconsistent. Christian asserts that the inspectors did not ask him whether the betel nuts were from Palau or Yap.

Three counts are charged against Christian: interference with quarantine inspection; violation of quarantine laws; and obstructing governmental operations. For interference with quarantine inspection, the FSM is seeking incarceration for not more than 30 days, and a fine of at least $50. On the other two counts, the complaint alleges that the punishment is a fine of not more than $1,000 and incarceration of not more than one year for each count.

According to Sailas Henry, of the Department of Resources and Development, there is no regulation prohibiting betel nuts from Palau. However, an emergency notice was issued by the Department of R&D, preventing importation of all fruits and vegetables from Palau into any FSM state. This measure took effect on November 5, 1996, when the Department was informed of an outbreak of oriental fruit fly (Bactocera dorsalis) in Palau. As stated in the notice, the fruit fly is considered one of the worst species in the world, effecting bananas and vegetables, and many other crops. Under Title 22 of the FSM Code, emergency quarantine measures can be made by the Secretary of Resources and Development. Emergency measures can either be incorporated into existing regulations or withdrawn as soon as practicable. Incorporation or withdrawal must be done, no later than 30 days after the emergency measure is taken. It is not clear whether the emergency regulation was in effect at the time of the incident.

In the criminal complaint, Christian is charged with violation of "Plant and Animal Quarantine Regulation, Section 40 QP20" entitled "Coconuts (Palmae sp.)." The regulation prohibits the "importation into the FSM, or movement within the FSM" of all "seedlings and suckers" of the Palmae family. The complaint alleges that the distribution of betel nuts, by Christian, was a violation of the regulation. The regulation, if it applies to betel nuts, would, presumably, make it illegal to bring the nuts into Pohnpei from Yap or other FSM States, a common practice of travelers.

"This island is not free of diseases, yet they look to other islands," Christian maintained during Friday's interview. He said that our own trees are damaged, and nothing has been done to eradicate this problem. Since the outbreak in 1996, there have been no steps taken to check whether the outbreak of the fruit fly has been dispersed, Christian claimed.

The incident was the topic of much discussion on the Microstate Forum - a "bulletin board" on the Internet, where anyone, without restriction, may post questions and answers on any topic. Since users can post messages without identifying themselves, most users remain anonymous or use unusual pen names. One posted message by "Concerned FSMer" stated that "I almost puked several times...the image of those poor quarantine inspection officers kept passing in and out of my mind's eyes as they were ridiculed by the very person they have helped put into the FSM Congress."

"Pots", another Forum user, posted a message saying, "all people, including FSM citizens entering the FSM, are subjected to customs requirements, and the senator should know these as he is party to their respective legislation into law." It went on to question why the Airport Police did not step in to discharge their responsibilities under the law.

Fred Ramp, private attorney, is representing Senator Christian. Julia Freis, who is employed at the FSM Department of Justice as Assistant Attorney General, is handling the case for the FSM. Both attorneys were unable to comment on the case, as each was off-island during this issue's printing.

Andon Amaraich, presiding judge on the case, has set a pretrial hearing for December 15, 1998. Trial on the case is scheduled to begin Thursday, January 7, 1999.

For additional reports from The Island Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Island Tribune or http://www.islandtribune.com

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