Election Petition Against Cook Islands PM Dismissed By Court

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Court finds no evidence to support bribery allegation, Puna retains seat

By Emmanuel Samoglou

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Sept. 11, 2014) – Prime Minister Henry Puna’s political career is set to continue after the Cook Islands High Court’s dismissal of an electoral petition yesterday.

With the PM in attendance and the court connected through Skype link to Manihiki, Chief Justice Thomas Weston of the Cook Islands High Court issued his decision late in the day yesterday after hearing arguments on whether Puna committed bribery during July’s general elections.

Previously, Weston said voter qualification challenges outlined in a petition by Democratic Party candidate Apii Piho would not succeed to any extent in reversing the final vote count, which had Puna ahead by four votes – shortened subsequently to two.

As a result, Piho’s hopes of taking over from the PM as Manihiki’s Member of Parliament rested on two remaining allegations of bribery, and whether his legal team could meet the court’s standards of evidence.

According to testimony and documents filed in court, details of the allegations had Puna being accused of bribing voters on the island by offering free 15-horsepower outboard motors to every household on the island during a meeting held on the island prior to the election.

A second allegation described in court and in the documents alluded to a government programme for the repair of aluminium boats in Manihiki that began on April 23 and concluded on July 3 – less than a week before voting day.

In the end, Weston dismissed the allegations.

"I believe (Puna) spoke as an experienced politician who knows where to draw the line," said Weston, referring to the meeting where Puna was alleged to have offered the outboard motors.

Speaking afterwards, Puna described the decision as "a huge relief".

"It reaffirms my belief in the system, and also how important this process is for the scrutiny of the election," he said.

"It’s time to get on with the work," added Puna.

Today, officials are scheduled to travel to Aitutaki to gather evidence in a petition filed by Democratic Party candidate Kete Ioane, who is challenging his election night loss to Vaipae-Tautu’s incumbent MP and Cabinet Minister Mona Ioane.

Six votes separated the two candidates after the announcement of final results.

The court returns to Rarotonga in the evening, and Friday has been set aside as a day to deal with any remaining petition matters.

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