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AUCKLAND, New Zealand (February 27, 2002 – New Zealand Herald)---Relations with Tonga have reached a new low, amid warnings from ministers that the Tongan Government must respect human rights and evidence of a letter-writing campaign to belittle New Zealand in the island kingdom.

Veteran democracy campaigner ‘Akilisi Pohiva was taken into custody on Monday by Tongan police prompting the warning from New Zealand that human rights must be upheld.

Mr. Pohiva was later allowed to leave police custody but his son and another pro-democracy figure remain in detention.

Associate Foreign Affairs Minister Matt Robson said it was clear Tonga was not meeting its international obligations.

"The Tongan Government is well aware that the NZ Government wants respect for human rights," he said.

"We won't, and never will use aid as a weapon. Aid will be for the development of the people.

"But we need to make the Tongan Government aware that the standards of international human rights apply to everybody who signed up to the agreements for respect of human rights."

Mr. Pohiva last month claimed that King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV had a secret overseas bank account containing at least US$ 350 million.

Mr. Robson said he knew Mr. Pohiva, and he had the confidence of many Tongans.

He said the "situation of democracy in Tonga" was a concern. He had been visited by Tongans of high standing in New Zealand who were also worried.

Meanwhile, Agence France Presse reported that Tonga's royal family has hit back at corruption allegations with a public relations campaign of sheep jokes and complaints over bad food aid.

Infuriated by the criticism, Prime Minister Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka ‘Ata has also accused New Zealand of trying to subvert next month's general election.

Foreign Minister Phil Goff said on February 12 that controls had been imposed to avoid New Zealand's annual NZ$ 6 million (US$ 2,505,120) to the country being "subverted by corruption."

He also said there was "regrettably little sign of major constitutional change on the horizon" in Tonga.

Mr. Robson further enraged Tonga's royal family by saying their nation suffered "endemic corruption."

In a recent statement Prince Lavaka ‘Ata said Mr Goff's comments were a deliberate attempt to influence the outcome of the March 7 parliamentary elections. He said aid also helped the donor.

"One example would be that they give us aid and they dump mutton flaps on the Tongan market; mutton flaps that are hardly edible by the health standards of New Zealand."

A spokesman for Mr. Goff said the mutton flaps imported into Tonga were not part of Government aid. They were a private matter between meat exporters here and importers in Tonga.

"If they want to buy them, they buy them."

It was also reported that the Tongan Government had sent international media apparently spontaneous letters of support from commoners - accompanied by a demand they be printed.

Mr. Robson said he had seen some letters and been advised there was a connection to the Tongan Government.

But he did not regret his comments about corruption in Tonga and the need for democracy there.

One letter, written by Fisi‘ihoi Sefesi, said it was "totally disgusting" that New Zealand aid was assisting the growth of democracy in the kingdom. Another, from a Sitiveni Finau, attacks New Zealand's "mindless allegations."

"It was alleged that corruption was evidenced by lifestyle and the schooling of children overseas. It is not a crime to live comfortably, or to send one's children to study overseas," Finau wrote.

The letter-writer then launched a personal attack on Mr. Robson, telling him and New Zealanders in general "to take his money and shove it."

A Fiji legal source said that last week the Tongan royals were seeking help from international public relations firms with representatives in Suva.

For additional reports from The New Zealand Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/ New Zealand Herald.

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