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Testimony in Ashika sinking suggests misuse of funds

NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Feb. 18, 2010) – The Motor Vessel (MV) Princess Ashika costing FJ$600,000 [US$310,000]was bought with funds given by the People's Republic of China to Government of Tonga, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Ashika sinking was told on February 17.

The Minister of Finance and Public Enterprise Hon. 'Afualo Matoto in continuing his evidence in the afternoon session agreed that Government had no allocation in its budget to purchase the replacement vessel.

[PIR editor’s note: The MV Princess Ashika was an inter-island ferry which operated in Tonga. The vessel, built in 1972, began sailing the Tongan route on 7 July 2009 only to sink less than a month later on 5 August. Official figures released by Operation Ashika on August 19, 2009, confirmed that 54 men were rescued, and 74 persons were lost at sea. See related story here.]

Counsel Assisting Manuel Varitimos asked the Minister if it was correct to say expenditure by Government needed authorization and that a budget is passed by Legislative Assembly; and the Minister agreed.

"So if money was paid outside the budget, it is unauthorized funds, and funds paid for the Ashika were unauthorized funds submitted?" said the counsel.

But the Minister disagreed and pointed out to the aid funds and added that the money was taken from aid funds and that the donor did not specify what it was to be used for or its purpose. He added that there was arrangement that the funds were for optical slots.

"For satellite purposes in terms of telecommunication?" asked the counsel, and the Minister agreed.

The Minister confirmed that the funds from the People's Republic of China given to Government in December 2008 amounting to more than 15 million pa’anga [US$7.9 million]. He then added there was arrangement that the fund was to be used for optical slots.

"That was for satellite purposes in terms of communication?" asked the counsel and the Minister agreed.

The counsel put to him that this was a far cry from purchasing a vessel, the Minister said it was a fund from China but there were no specifications and it was up for the Government of Tonga's consideration.

The counsel put to the witness that aid funds are money given to be used for something; and the Minister agreed.

"Was the People's Republic of China ever consulted that the money was used for Ashika? said the counsel.

The Minister said, no it was not necessary, and it was not done.

"When you signed the Cabinet Memorandum on April 20 had you had any contemplation about the money from China or when did you seek view of the money from China," said the counsel.

The Minister said they were looking for aid funds and considered that New Zealand Government might assist, but there were no other aid funds available apart from the China funds.

It was also revealed in the Minister of Finance's affidavit submitted to the inquiry, that on April 23, 2003 Cabinet meeting the Prime Minister Hon. Feleti Sevele wanted to know if the replacement vessel could be purchased with aid funds.

He was of view that Government should only resort to using its own funds if aid money was unavailable, stated the Minister of Finance.

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