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By Evan Wasuka

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Solomon Star, May 17) – Crown prosecutors are fighting hard to keep former Foreign Affairs Minister Alex Bartlett in custody fearing possible witness interferences if the former Solomon Islands militant leader is released on bail.

Mr. Bartlett, 53, who has been in custody since his arrest on rioting and arson charges last Friday, launched his bail application yesterday in the Magistrates Court.

The former general secretary of the Malaita Eagle Force is accused of instructing the burning down of a Chinatown building and inciting looters during the April 18 rioting in Solomon Islands capital of Honiara.

Crown prosecutor Paul Bannister, yesterday, objected to the bail application, telling the court that witnesses would be interfered with once Mr. Bartlett is out on bail.

"We are dealing with fresh charges and risk of witness interference is high. Mr. Bartlet in his position of power as former general secretary of the Malaita Eagle Force and former parliamentarian has the capability to interfere with witnesses and investigations," said the prosecutor.

He told the court of five previous occasions where Mr. Bartlett allegedly attempted to influence witnesses while out on bail in other criminal cases.

Mr. Bannister called for the court to remand Mr. Bartlett, citing the seriousness of the charges, saying the alleged charges were committed while on bail on a different criminal case.

The prosecution told the court that on the night of April 18, an eyewitness saw Mr. Bartlett go to another man and instruct him to burn down a building in Chinatown.

"That person then took steps to burn the building down," said Mr. Bannister. "The eyewitness was in close proximity to Mr. Bartlett, within touching area."

Later that night, the prosecution said witnesses identified Mr. Bartlet near the Cute Shop, shaking hands with looters and encouraging them to carry on with what they were doing.

In a police interview after the incident, Mr. Bartlett told police officers that he had not set foot in Chinatown since February.

He told the police officers that the eyewitnesses must have seen ghosts.

But Steven Lawrence from the Public Solicitor’s Office argued this saying it was not a crime to be in Chinatown.

Mr. Lawrence said Mr. Bartlett should be given bail as he is protected by the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

"My client is in the unfortunate situation of being charged with numerous offences and he has not yet been to trial to clear his name," said Mr. Lawrence.

Mr. Lawrence told the court that the prosecution’s case was not strong enough to deny Mr. Bartlett bail with only one witness overhearing alleged instructions to burn down the building.

As for interfering with witnesses, Mr. Lawrence said his client had been out on bail since February and there has been no evidence of him interfering with witnesses.

"If Mr. Bartlett was a man to interfere with witnesses these four months would have been ideal time. The Malaita Eagle Force is long gone, his membership of parliament is long gone," said Mr. Lawrence.

Mr. Lawrence said his client was not a flight risk and should be granted bail.

The court will reconvene on Thursday when Magistrate William Seri Seneka is expected to deliver his ruling on the bail application.

Mr. Bartlett joins Members of Parliament Charles Dausabea and Nelson Ne’e in custody on rioting charges.

He is expected to appear in the High Court in September to face charges of arson, procuring arson, possession of firearms, demanding with menace, demanding property on forged documents and receiving stolen property.

A former member for Small Malaita, Mr. Bartlett was terminated from his ministerial portfolio after his arrest in 2004.

He didn’t contest in the last elections.

May 17, 2006

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