TONGA: EX-COLONEL IS HERE ON HUMANITARIAN

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Chances of extraditing Ratu Tevita to Fiji are slim

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, May 18, 2011) - The Tongan Government says Fiji has a slim chance of extraditing a former top military man who has sought refuge in the Kingdom.

Lieutenant Colonel Ratu Tevita Mara has fled to Tonga from Fiji because he says he has been wrongly charged with attempted mutiny and sedition.

Fiji's military leader Frank Bainimarama has accused Tonga of illegally sending a navy patrol boat into his country's waters to help Lt Col Mara flee justice.

Commodore Bainimarama says the "illegal extraction" took place last week, when a Tongan patrol vessel picked up Lt Col Mara off Fiji's Kadavu island.

Tonga's Minister for Public Enterprise, Clive Edwards, has told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat program his country has not breached Fiji's sovereignty as claimed by Commodore Bainimarama.

The Fiji Government has filed a formal legal request with Tonga to have him extradited.

Mr. Edwards says he does not know what will happen.

"From looking at the law Fiji would have a slim chance of getting him back," he said.

Commodore Bainimarama has also accused Lt Col Mara him of being involved in the theft of US$1.7 million (3 million Fijian dollars) from the Fiji Pine Trust.

Lt Col Mara has rejected the allegations.

"He has accused me of being under investigation for the disappearance of three million dollars from the Fiji Pine board," Lt Col Mara said.

"These are the desperate attempts by a mentally and morally bankrupt man to smear the Mara name."

Lt Col Mara says he does not want to return to Fiji to face these charges because he is concerned about the interim Attorney General's interference with the judiciary.

[PIR editor’s note: In an RNZI report, Mara says his wife and a female cousin were both interrogated at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks.]

Lt Col Mara is now under the protection of the royal household in Tonga.

The leader of Tonga's opposition party says the rescue of Lt Col Mara by a Tongan patrol boat could seriously affect diplomatic relations with Fiji.

Democratic Party leader Akilisi Pohiva also says Lt Col Mara's presence in the Kingdom is justified on humanitarian grounds.

Lt Col Mara has called for regime change in Fiji after he was rescued at sea by a Tongan patrol boat in what Fiji says were Fijian territorial waters.

Mr. Pohiva told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat program he is concerned over the Tongan Government's decision to pick him from Fijian waters.

"For the Tongan vessel to enter Fiji's waters to rescue someone who is alleged to have committed a criminal offence clearly breaches the international law or diplomatic relationship between the Tongan Government and Fiji," he said.

Meanwhile, Australia has taken New Zealand's stand on the issue of Lt Col Mara fleeing to Tonga where he is seeking asylum.

Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, has told Pacific Beat the matter is for Fiji and Tonga to work out.

Speaking the Pacific Islands Forum Trade Ministers' meeting from the island of Vava'u, he says Australia - like New Zealand - will be monitoring the situation closely.

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