Tonga Cabinet Investigates Removal Of Girl To United States

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‘Deception’ by US embassy staffer, police alleged

NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, April 6, 2014) – The removal of a Tongan girl by deception from her guardian in Tongatapu, apparently with the assistance of a US Embassy staffer from Fiji and the Tonga Police on 8 March 2013, has come under the scrutiny of a Cabinet Investigative Committee, headed by the Minister of Police, Hon. Siosifa Tu‘utafaiva.

The deception surfaced last week after a member of Parliament, Lisiate 'Akolo, questioned if it was conflict of interest for the Minister of Police, Hon. Siosifa Tu'utafaiva to chair the Cabinet Committee that is investigating an incident that had involved the police.

The child, a dual citizen of Tonga and the United States, was lawfully resident within Tonga and in the lawful care of her uncle, after her father, a Tongan citizen, had died in January 2012.

The Tonga Cabinet’s investigation was prompted after Tonga’s Chief Justice Scott censured the way in which the 13-year-old was taken away from her uncle’s home in a covert bid to reunite her and two older siblings with her mother, a US citizen, in the United States.

Although the court awarded custody to the mother, issuing a Supreme Court Order on March 20, 2013, the Chief Justice also referred the matter to the Minister of Justice on March 22, 2013 to determine further action on what he deemed had been a "wholly improper" attempt to take the child outside of the lawful procedures.

"In my view the procedure adopted by the US authorities, if it has been correctly described to me, was wholly improper and unacceptable and should never be repeated," Chief Justice Scott stated.

On 22 March 2013, he stated that the case had come before the court in an unusual way and he wished to particularise some of the circumstances "with a view to preventing their recurrence".

The court heard that the mother left Tonga for the USA in 2007, leaving her husband and three children behind. After the father died in 2012 the three children came under the guardianship of his brother. The two elder children had later moved away from the uncle’s home but the younger girl remained.

After the girl had been covertly removed from the guardian’s home on March 8, the uncle Mr Halangahu Fifita and Mrs ‘Ateleaite Fifita, had applied for a custody order under the Guardianship Act, for the return of the child to them.

It was stated that on 8 March 2013 an aunt had informed the girl that a teacher from St Andrew's College had come to their home and asked her to come over and complete an English project. The girl then walked with the guardian’s 12-years old son to St Andrew’s College.

A while later the son returned without her, then a few hours later, the guardians approached the school principal who told them that there was no school that day and no one had come into school. The guardians were worried, and found out that the child was in the care of Inspector Salote Tonga of the Tonga Police.

According to the Court, a US Embassy Suva consular official identified as "Sulieti" arrived in Tonga a few days prior to 9 March 2013 having obtained airline tickets for the three children to travel to the United States.

"After arranging that the two elder children would go with her, she sought the assistance of one or more teachers at St Andrew's College and the police to remove the child from her carers, the Applicants, by a process of deception," stated Chief Justice Scott.

"At no stage had any application been made to the Court either by the mother, or on the mother’s behalf by the US Embassy or anyone else," he stated.

A copy of Chief Justice Scott's Reasons for Order of 22 March 2013 was presented to the Minister of Justice for "such further action by him as may be thought appropriate".

Cabinet Investigative Committee

The Chief Executive Officer for the Ministry of Justice, Susana Faletau said that the matter was currently with the Cabinet Investigative Committee, and they were awaiting its report before a decision was made on what action would be taken.

Meanwhile, In Parliament on April 2, the Minister of Police responded to Lisiate ‘Akolo’s question that there was no Conflict of Interest on his part, because it was his responsibility to find out if the police did anything wrong.

He pointed out though that the Deputy Police Commissioner, 'Unga Fa'aoa who was a member of the committee had been replaced. The Investigative Committee was now chaired by the Minister of Police, Hon. Siosifa Tu'utafaiva, with a former of Minister of Justice, 'Aisea Taumoepeau, and Sione 'Etika, a Police Magistrate.

The committee's investigation is expected to be completed and its report presented to Cabinet later this week.

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