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Scott Radway

KOROR, Palau (Pacific Daily News, Aug. 5) - The country's most
powerful traditional leader accepted a plea bargain for striking an American
attorney with an aluminum baseball bat, ending months of volatile debate over
whether the paramount chief of Koror should be tried in a Western court of law.

Paramount Chief Yutaka Gibbons wanted to avoid further conflict
in a young republic struggling to balance the preservation of its traditions
with westernization, according to Alan Seid, Gibbons' spokesman. Gibbons may get
up to five years in prison.

"It is part of his traditional role to prevent further
conflict," Seid said June 22 when the plea agreement was accepted. Gibbons
"is also recognizing that common law is equally important in the public eye
and in the general welfare of the public."

Gibbons, whose title is the Ibedul, was charged Jan. 14 after he
struck Matthew Johnson several times for refusing to leave a Koror State Public
Lands Authority meeting. Johnson is the attorney for the Palau Public Lands
Authority, which has oversight of the Koror body.

Gibbons has never denied the assault. The issue, for Gibbons and
his supporters, was whether the constitutional government could prosecute the
Ibedul for an act permissible under custom. According to tradition, they said,
the Ibedul can oust a person and physically punish him if he disobeys.

Palau's constitution states traditional law shall be
"equally authoritative" as the laws of the republic, but also that
traditional power should not usurp constitutional governance. Some Palauans have
said that even if democratic laws applied, traditions are older and mean much
more. Some also were upset by the perceived disrespect shown the Ibedul.

Gibbons agreed to pay a $1,000 fine, pay Johnson's medical bills
and perform 100 hours of community service.

A charge of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon stands,
with a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $1,000 fine. Sentencing is
set for Aug. 18.

Some, including Johnson, felt the punishment was lenient.

"There is no question that I came within inches of being
killed. If my skull had taken the blow instead of my arm, the injury would have
been fatal," Johnson said in a prepared statement. "He should have
been charged with attempted murder. We were disappointed when he was not charged
appropriately. We are even more disappointed now that he has been allowed to
plead guilty to the lesser felony."

August 5, 2003

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