MARSHALL ISLANDS PASSPORT SALE CONTROVERSY HEATS UP

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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (January 4, 2001 - Marianas Variety/PINA Nius Online)---A naturalized Marshall Islands citizen has petitioned the High Court in Majuro to order the government to renew his passport.

But an official in the Attorney-General's Office said all requests for renewals for purchased Marshall Islands passports are under investigation -- and therefore at least temporarily on hold.

It is part of a broader probe by the government’s Task Force on Accountability of the previous passport sales program.

Li Hai Bin, originally from China, obtained his Marshall Islands passport and citizenship in 1995. His passport expired in mid-November and both the Immigration Department and Attorney-General¹s Office have balked at renewing the passport, Li told the high court in his petition.

"There is a presumption that the passport will be renewed, but the law allows us to ask questions (of naturalized citizens)," Assistant Attorney-General Richard Hickson said. "We need to check the bonafides of the issuance of these purchased passports."

Determining the legality of the purchased passport is "often difficult when it was issued in Taiwan or China," he said.

Hickson indicated that in recent weeks there had been "another seven or eight" applications for renewals of passports bought by Asians under the now-discontinued passport sale program.

The passports were issued for five- year periods and as the sales peaked and then ended in 1996, Hickson expects that many more requests for renewals will be forthcoming. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 passports were sold.

Hickson said that his office was attempting to learn from each of the naturalized citizens seeking passport renewals where they bought their passports, how much they paid, and other related information. This information hadn’t yet been obtained from Li, indicated Hickson.

But Li’s lawyer, John Masek, said the Marshall Islands government is violating Li’s constitutional rights to equal protection of the law by its refusal to renew his passport.

According to the petition, "(Li) filed for a renewal on Nov. 14. Subsequently, Immigration informed him the matter had been referred to (AGO). After Li retained Masek, Masek said he spoke with Assistant Attorney- General Moses Gago, who informed him the government was reviewing all cases involving naturalized citizens of Chinese origin who obtained their passports through the government¹s previous passport program."

Masek charges in the suit that the only reason Immigration and the government have refused to issue a passport is "unsubstantiated allegations" that have no legal or factual basis that Li "might have obtained his passport illegally."

Masek called it a "gross violation" of due process under the constitution, noting that Li hadn’t been charged with any misconduct, nor had any hearing been held to revoke his citizenship.

Meanwhile, Li is stuck, Masek said. Because he has no passport, he can’t leave the Marshall Islands. His family and his real estate business are in Hong Kong, and he needs to return there, Masek said.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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