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PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Oct. 1, 2002 – Radio Australia)---In Vanuatu, the size of the controversial police mutiny trial has been cut dramatically, with public prosecutors today deciding to drop charges against 18 of the 25 officers.

All the officers were alleged to have been involved in the Aug. 4 police arrest of Mael Apisai, the police commissioner installed by the government under controversial circumstances. But all eight officers still facing charges are now expected to plead "not guilty" in the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

It was to have been the mutiny trial of the century for Vanuatu. But Port Vila lawyer John Malcolm, who had been asked to defend 22 of the officers, said his job would be "considerably easier. It's impossible for an unfunded single lawyer to defend 22 people, especially when they've got conflicting cases."

Malcolm said the 18 people basically were "foot soldiers who were obeying orders. In a trial, they would be clearly saying, ‘Hey look, we were just obeying orders.’ So you've got that clear conflict of the rank-and-file effectively putting the officers into a hole."

He said the remaining charges are mutiny, inciting mutiny and a couple of others.

Under Vanuatu law, those found guilty of mutiny face a maximum jail sentence of three years. But incitement to mutiny carries life imprisonment, the charge most of the eight high-ranking officers are now facing.

Two overseas prosecutors – Australians Mark Hobart and Jonathan Baxter-Wright – will be flown in for the trial. For them, this won't be an open-and-shut case.

Vanuatu police claim they were constitutionally entitled to arrest Mr. Apisai along with 14 government officials, given Mr Apisai's appointment was later ruled unlawful by the country's Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Public Prosecutor Heather Lini-Leo has rejected suggestions the 18 officers against whom the charges were dropped have gotten away with mutiny. Given the enormous amount of documentation relating to the charges, she says prosecutors were bound to review their position late in the game.

She said that on Sept. 19 when a preliminary inquiry was held, prosecutors made it clear what they could come up with in a very short time. "We will be amending information, amending charges, and the number of accused could also be reduced once we do a further detailed analysis of the evidence."

Lini-Leo said that for others who were not part of the arresting team on Aug. 4, "there was no evidence to tie them up, especially for the proposed charge of unlawful assembly. The other arresting officers, the subordinate officers, the prosecution found that they were carrying out orders from their superiors."

For additional reports from Radio Australia, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia.

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