IN THE MARSHALL ISLANDS, LAWYER STRAUSS WONDERS: WHY IS UNA ALONE?

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MAJURO, Marshall Islands (April 16, 1999 - Marshall Islands Journal)---Una Watak’s attorney David Strauss used Tuesday’s preliminary hearing in the passport case to argue that his client is being singled out for prosecution when other government officials and their agents are guilty of wrongdoing but are not being prosecuted.

At the outset of the hearing, government prosecutor Natan Brechtefeld dropped 18 charges against Watak, leaving 54 counts. He called former Foreign Secretary Bobby Muller and Acting Chief of Immigration Isaac Lanwi to provide evidence to back up the government’s charges that Watak received $100,000 from a Taiwanese for 12 RMI passports that he illegally signed and issued last July.

Because three witnesses called by the defense were not at the hearing, it was continued to next Monday morning.

Strauss grilled Muller for more than two hours about every facet of the government’s passport program. At one point Brechtefeld objected to a line of questioning. But Chief Justice Dan Cadra said that Marshall Islands law allowed the defense wide latitude during a preliminary hearing, and allowed the questioning to move forward.

In response to a question from Strauss, Muller said this was not a politically motivated prosecution. Muller said he had recommended that two individuals be prosecuted in connection with illegal issuance of passports: Watak and a Taiwan national. But Strauss read a letter from Muller dated August 19, 1998, which authorized prosecution of Watak and former Foreign Secretary Jiba Kauba. Muller said that the Attorney General advised that it had adequate evidence only to prosecute Watak and the Taiwanese national and so he withdrew the other recommendation.

Later in the hearing, Brechtefeld said there was no issue of selective prosecution. "We have evidence (against Watak)," he said. "That is why charges were filed." There may be allegations against others but those need to be the subject of a proper investigation and charges could be filed later, he said.

A point Strauss kept hitting on was his contention that passports continued to be sold and issued to aliens after the Cabinet had issued its decision to suspend the program on June 18, 1996 -- but that nothing had been done regarding these illegal activities.

Strauss showed Muller Xerox copies of several passports issued to foreigners, which were dated in February and April of 1996, but were in a 23,000 number series that Muller indicated was in use during his tenure as Secretary from late 1996 through the end of 1998. Muller confirmed Strauss’ query that these passports were signed by former Foreign Secretary Jiba Kauba, and added that he had never authorized anyone to sign RMI passports.

Muller testified that the 16,000 to 18,000 series was reserved for passports sold in the government’s passport program. But Strauss produced a copy of a passport number 25,121 issued to an alien in April 1998 and asked who had issued it. Muller said it wasn’t his signature and he didn’t know whose it was, nor had he authorized it, but added that the law allowed the Cabinet to issue up to five passports each year to non-Marshallese and that this was probably one of the five for last year.

In response to questions, Muller confirmed that it was often four to five months after sales that money came in from agents, and acknowledged that not all passports or money had been accounted for, despite the fact that after the Cabinet issued its directive in June 1996 the Ministry of foreign Affairs "took steps to stop passport sales and instructed agents to return money and passports to the Ministry."

Strauss asked if the 300 passports issued to Susan Heine at the Beijing Embassy in June 1996, the same month the program was terminated, were re-called. Muller replied that the former Secretary had said it was difficult to recall passports being sold at the time.

Strauss wanted to know what the status of the 300 passports was and Muller said not all had been accounted for, a matter that had been referred to an independent auditor to verify.

Testimony of Immigration’s Lanwi indicated that there is still money with agents that has not been turned into the RMI. Strauss peppered Muller with questions about a residence program operated by the RMI Embassy in Japan, with Muller indicating that he was aware that the embassy had received more money for sales of these residency permits than it had turned into the government.

Muller indicated that he was not aware of any charges being brought against RMI Embassy officials, but added the problem involved a Japanese national who was an agent for the program, not embassy staff. "Nothing was done to prosecute him or recover the money?" Strauss asked. "Not to my knowledge," Muller replied.

Strauss also read excerpts from a memorandum of understanding signed by Foreign Minister Phillip Muller, which acknowledged that the Japanese residency program was "illegal" and had "no legal basis." Muller testified that these agreements were the way that the government attempted to resolve the problem.

Strauss questioned King’s Travel agent Eileen Camba about the several occasions during 1998, including as late as August, when she picked up packages of passports from the immigration office for Peter Wang, a partner with Phillip Muller in King’s Travel. Strauss read transmittal letters on RMI letterhead indicating that more than 35 passports were provided to Wang during 1996 by immigration. She said she was not aware that the passport sale program had been suspended and said she was merely picking up documents she had been asked to collect.

Strauss later questioned Assistant Attorney General Atbi Riklon, the registrar of corporations, concerning corporate records for King’s Travel, Trans Pacific Enterprises and Pacific Dragon, all of which he indicated were involved in passport sales. Riklon said he was only able to find records for Trans Pacific and Pacific Dragon.

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

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