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Court rejects Jonesse bid to return to New Zealand

NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, March 31, 2010) - New Zealander John Jonesse, who faces 25 serious charges relating to the Ashika ferry disaster, was stopped from leaving Tonga today after an emergency sitting of the Supreme Court overturned a decision by a magistrate to let Jonesse leave.

This afternoon Chief Justice Hon Anthony Ford stopped Jonesse, the former Managing Director of the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia Ltd., from traveling to New Zealand tonight, as it would be easy for him to abscond. He is charged with manslaughter, forgery and other charges.

Last week, in a surprise decision, a Tongan magistrate had granted Jonesse’s application for a variation to his bail condition to allow him to travel to New Zealand.

The Chief Justice said that the Magistrate granted the application for the variation to Jonesse’s bail under certain conditions last week and an appeal against that decision was lodged with the Supreme Court just yesterday.

The Attorney General John Cauchi said he had appealed to the Supreme Court because of the fact that Jonesse had made a booking to return to New Zealand on Air New Zealand tonight.

The Chief Justice added that Jonesse was the Managing Director of the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia Ltd the operator of the MV Princess Ashika vessel that tragically sank on August 5, 2009, resulting in the loss of 74 lives.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the sinking was then established and held extensive public hearings in Nuku’alofa from October 2009 to March 2010. The Final Report was delivered to the king this morning, he said.

Given the high position he held at the Shipping Corporation, since the tragedy he had a large profile in the media, not only in Tonga but also overseas. Jonesse, was initially charged with forgery in relation the purchase of the Ashika ferry in February 2010.

The Chief Justice said the penalty for forgery carries a maximum sentence of five to seven years. Then on Saturday, March 27 the accused was additionally charged with 25 charges, one of them was manslaughter by negligence.

Manslaughter is a serious offence carrying a maximum imprisonment sentence of 25 years. The Preliminary Inquiry that was initially set for April 22 is now adjourned to July 21, he added.

The Chief Justice explained that the grounds on which the application was made by the accused was to travel to New Zealand to take his wife and two daughters to Christchurch and put them in school.

Counsel Laki Niu who represented Jonesse submitted that the accused wanted to find a job and support his family and that he has a mortgage on his house that he had to pay in Christchurch.

Niu also submitted that Jonesse had led an exemplary life and had no previous criminal record in Tonga or in New Zealand.

The Chief Justice said a submission was also made that the accused was prepared to leave his four-wheel drive worth $12,000 with the Tonga Police as security. In addition he was prepared to surrender his passport to the Tonga High Commission in New Zealand.

In response the Crown objected on substantial grounds that the accused would not return to Tonga. The Crown submitted that accused faced very serious charges and there was no dispute about that. Sadly, the accused had not provided sufficient evidence that he would return to Tonga, added the Chief Justice.

Crown counsel Sione Sisifa also submitted although Tonga has an Extradition Treaty with New Zealand that would not prevent the accused leaving New Zealand for another country in which Tonga had no such treaty.

He submitted that if the accused were to leave Tonga no one would have control over him. In relation to employment issue the Solicitor General submitted today that Jonesse continues to have a valid work permit in Tonga and there is nothing to prevent him finding work here.

One factor of consideration was that once the accused leaves Tonga he would cease to have any connection with Tonga as he has no family ties here nor any business that would give the court some degree of comfort, said the Chief Justice.

The Chief Justice added that even if the accused was to obtain a job in New Zealand what responsible employer would grant him time to come to Tonga for his Preliminary Inquiry or hearing and how would he pay for his ticket to Tonga.

In concluding his ruling, the Chief Justice said it was impossible not to feel sympathy towards the accused and his family, as he was the judge who granted Jonesse the adoption of two Tongan girls.

He said he had no doubt that the family’s intention to take the two girls to New Zealand and put them in school was genuine. But against that he considered the case against the accused and others who are charged in relation to the Ashika as a huge public profile.

Even today the laying of preliminary charges was publicized in media not only Tonga but overseas and the accused’s involvement in relation to the Ashika continues to be debated in the public arena.

"The charges are very serious charges and if found guilty the consequence is a lengthy imprisonment sentence. All these factors lead to that if the accused is given the opportunity to leave it’s hard for me to vary the condition of his bail as it would be easy for him to abscond," concluded Chief Justice Ford.

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