NEW CALEDONIA COURT SENTENCES VANUATU DIPLOMAT’S SON

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NOUMEA, New Caledonia (April 25, 2000 – Oceanic Flash/SPC)---The son of Vanuatu’s Vice-Consul in New Caledonia, Gauthier Punenarai, was found guilty of drunk driving and double homicide by a Nouméa tribunal and sentenced to 15 months jail, the Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes reports.

Gauthier Punenarai is the son of Etienne Punenarai, Vanuatu’s Vice-Consul in the French territory.

On November 7, 1999, Gauthier fell asleep while driving his vehicle and accidentally caused the death of an elderly couple, Antoine and Véronique N’Guyen (respectively 82 and 86 years old), who were returning from mass.

The case had triggered a heated debate within the French territory as to whether the suspect’s diplomatic immunity should be lifted or not.

New Caledonia President Jean Lèques had even called on the lifting of diplomatic immunity for Punenarai, who had earlier claimed the special status with regards to his father’s posting.

French Foreign affairs had replied to New Caledonia’s public prosecutor, saying no letter of credentials had ever been detained by vice-consul Punenarai and his son, and therefore has no diplomatic immunity.

The diplomatic immunity was finally lifted and Punenarai was arrested early December. He had since been remanded in custody pending his trial. He was found guilty of unintentional homicide, driving without a valid license and careless driving.

Police reports indicated that after the accident, some 1.8 grams of alcohol were found in his blood.

"I didn’t want to evade the justice and I would like to ask for the family of Mr. and Mrs. N’Guyen to forgive me," the 26-year-old Gauthier told the court.

Prosecution established that Punenarai had spent the night preceding the accident drinking alcohol and kava and had been seen in numerous nightclubs of Nouméa.

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