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Sevele takes exception to manner of inquiry lawyer

NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Feb. 24, 2010) - TONGA'S Prime Minister Dr. Feleti Sevele was censured this morning for making an "inappropriate" personal remark to counsel assisting, in a closing statement he gave to the Ashika Inquiry, following an intense session of questioning that continued to midnight last night.

When the session reopened this morning, February 24, Mr. Justice Warwick, the Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry into the sinking of the Motor Vessel (MV) Princess Ashika, stated that the Prime Minister had made a personal attack on counsel assisting, Manuel Varitimos.

[PIR editor’s note: The Royal Commission is made up of 3 Commissioners. It is required to make its enquiry and to furnish to the King in Council and the Legislative Assembly its interim report no later than 31 March 2010. Chairman of the Royal Commission, Justice Andrew is a Supreme Court Judge in Tonga. His Honour is an experienced lawyer and Jurist who has practiced his law and presided in Pacific Courts for over 40 years. The Royal Commission does not require the approval of any Ministry nor does it rely for its authority on any political mandate.]

"Last evening the Prime Minister gave evidence. The Prime Minister via his counsel asked whether he could make a statement at the conclusion of his evidence. The Prime Minister was allowed to do so in good faith.

"The Prime Minister took the opportunity given to him to make a personal attack on counsel assisting. The attack was inappropriate," Mr. Justice Warwick stated, going on to say that, "Questions will continue to be asked which some may not like. That is the nature of an inquiry of this sort."

Yesterday, the Prime Minister appeared before the commission for the second time, in an evening session starting at 7 pm. Apart from two short breaks, the inquiry did not adjourn until 12:22 am, but before Mr. Justice Warwick declared the Inquiry closed for the night, the Prime Minister was given the opportunity to make a statement.

Dr. Sevele said that, "The Ashika tragedy represents one of the saddest losses to have befallen our beloved kingdom . . . One over which every Tongan with no exception has mourned or continues to mourn."

On behalf of himself and the government he extended his sympathies to the families who lost loved ones and said, "We are truly sorry and I, as Prime Minister, apologize most sincerely for the failings which have happened at various levels of government and of the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia. . . . The tragedy should never have happened."

But then, in a conclusion, the Prime Minister went on to address a suggestion that he had been dictatorial in the time schedule to attend the inquiry, but he pointed out that his attendance to sit into the middle of the night was evidence of the government's commitment to an open, fair and impartial inquiry.

He revealed his dismay at the questioning by the commission, in regard to Cabinet proceedings.

"It has been suggested here, much to my dismay, Mr. Chairman, as Prime Minister, that perhaps Cabinet should think of recording its discussions, recording those who dissent in the interests of transparency. Mr. Chairman, Tonga is not alone in having the procedure whereby discussions in Cabinet are not recorded," he said.

Dr. Sevele, who was upset over the commission's questioning of the king's power to appoint Tonga's law lords, stated, "a suggestion that the Law Lords are a law unto themselves, Mr. Chairman - this is a direct attack on His Majesty's constitutional authority, an attack which I find constitutes condescending arrogance and downright disrespect."

But it appeared to be a final remark in the Prime Minister's statement that irked the Chairman, when Dr. Sevele said: "Finally, counsel assisting the Commission, you may be an excellent counsel in Australia, but when you are in the Kingdom of Tonga, please try to understand our constitution and show some respect for our monarch, for our government, our people and our culture. Thank you very much."

Mr. Justice Warwick in his statement this morning said the Counsel Assisting, Manual Varitimos had asked over 500,000 questions at this inquiry. "Some may have not liked questions asked or preferred them not to have been asked. The Commission is independent and will remain so. . . . The Commission is determined to ascertain the truth, as was indicated at the commencement of the inquiry last year," he said.

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