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Journalists jailed in 1996 win damages from government

(PINA/IFEX) - On 12 December 2002, the Pacific Islands news service PINA Nius reported that two Tongan journalists and a pro-democracy parliamentarian were awarded nearly US$26,000 in damages over their wrongful jailing in 1996. PINA Nius quoted the Tongan Supreme Court as saying "Times of Tonga" publisher and journalist Kalafi Moala, his then editor Filokalafi 'Akau'ola, and parliamentarian 'Akilisi Pohiva suffered a "grave injustice."

The trio had sued the Tongan government over their imprisonment for 30 days by the kingdom's Legislative Assembly for alleged contempt. The jailings came after Pohiva, a pro-democracy movement parliamentarian, told the "Times of Tonga" of a planned impeachment motion against one of the ministers appointed by King Taufa'ahau Tupou. After the "Times of Tonga" published details of this before Pohiva's motion had been tabled, Police Minister Clive Edwards moved that they be charged with contempt. They were tried and convicted by the Legislative Assembly and sentenced to 30 days in prison.

Their jailing caused an international outcry. PINA sent a representative from Fiji to Tonga to press for their release. The Commonwealth Press Union's New Zealand section sent a New Zealand civil rights lawyer to the kingdom to take up their case. After being held in prison for 25 days, their release was ordered by Tonga's then chief justice, who said their jailing was unconstitutional. The Legislative Assembly appealed. In 1997 the kingdom's Court of Appeal said the jailing of the three persons was not only unconstitutional, but that they had also been convicted of a crime they did not commit.

In the latest court action, the Tongan Supreme Court awarded Moala nearly US$8,000. Pohiva and 'Akau'ola were awarded US$9,000 each. The ruling said, "They were professional people carrying on their respective occupations and public duties, then suddenly, literally overnight, for no lawful reason, they were earmarked as common criminals and incarcerated in the maximum security wing at Hu'atolitoli Prison."

Moala, who now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, from where he publishes the weekly "Times of Tonga" and other publications, said the ruling will give Tongan-based journalists more confidence to do their work. "This case will become a warning to government," he told Radio New Zealand International. "They shouldn't be continuing to bring harassment on those that are in dissent and those that are raising a critical voice in the country."

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