NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga (Radio Australia, Jan. 10) - In a departure from tradition, Tonga's opposition Human Rights and Democracy Movement is supporting the country's government over allegations of involvement in terrorism.

The ongoing issue of Tongan-registered ships being used for nefarious purposes has taken a new twist, with allegations that a fleet of fifteen ships flying the Tongan flag are in fact owned by Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

The pro-democracy movement, which is normally a fierce critic of the government, is now defending it.

The first allegations come from the Washington Post Newspaper, which quotes unnamed US Intelligence officials as saying that Osama Bin Laden terrorist Al Qaeda network is moving in the Mediterranean on Tongan flagged ships.

But the Tongan government last year announced that it was pulling out of the ship registration business.

As far as Pro Democracy Lopeti Senituli is concerned, people should stop criticizing Tonga.

"It’s blaming a dead horse because I believe the Tonga government has done its best to make right what was clearly a mistake. They have done what was expected of them by shutting down the office in Athens although the actual process of getting ships off the list will take a couple more years," said Senituli.

"Tonga is also concerned about the abuse of its ship registry by those who have allowed the ships to carry arms or smuggle people."

When asked whether the Tongan government thinks it is not its fault that terrorists abuse the ship registry, Senituli said the damage is done but Tonga has corrected the mistake.

"I said the government has made a genuine mistake in opening up the ship registry in Athens in the first place. They have done the right thing in shutting it down."

The Tongan government says it’s done everything it can by shutting down its international ship register.

It also claims that government can’t force international ship companies to take the Tongan flags off their ships because these companies purchased the right to fly it for at least five years.

That claim is not entirely correct according to Dr. Don Rothwell, Law Faculty, University of Sydney.

"The basic principles in international law that applies here is that a state has the capacity to register a vessel that claim its nationality or of course vessels registration based on convenience. But it is also possible they can easily de-register the vessels because they do not recognize those vessels to have the legitimate rights to claim their flags," said Rothwell.

"So applying very basic principles of international and national law in these cases, there is no real difficulty that prevent Tonga from deregistering these foreign vessels.

Rothwell adds that a move to register the vessels would accompany problems like a demand from deregistered companies for a refund.

"Certainly there will be some commercial ramifications for Tonga from this but that’s beside the point of the capacity of Tonga to recognize those vessels which fly under the Tongan flag."

"I think that is a completely different scenario from a Tonga company with Tongan ships flying with Tongan crew operating out of Tonga flying their flags as oppose to an international ship which registered in Tonga based on the flag of convenience regulations."

"Clearly Tonga would encounter some commercial ramifications but that does not remove its rights to deregister those vessels. These ramifications would certainly end up in maritime courts in other jurisdictions."

January 10, 2003

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

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