A Nation of Laws – Ctd.

Time and column inches conspired against me with this week’s Opinion column. Writing these weekly pieces is a labour of love for me, a needful service that – I hope – contributes to the public dialogue here in Vanuatu and to understanding abroad. But the need to earn a dollar often obtrudes, and the time I can devote to writing them is always less than I’d like.

This week, I feel I didn’t have nearly enough time to do a completely satisfactory job of mapping a morally, legally and ethically complicated landscape. While I feel I covered most of the main themes in the thousand or so words allowed me, much more needs to be said.

What follows is a somewhat lengthy consideration of what I chose to say – and chose not to say – in this column, and why I did so….

I wouldn’t have been able to write anything useful at all were it not for the patient and generous assistance of Daily Post staff and journalists, who shared their extensive notes and insights, and who talked me back from a more illiberal (and likely less accurate) piece. Even with their own deadlines looming, they bore the countless interruptions patiently and with grace.

Others with whom I discussed the issue were helpful to the extent they felt they could be, but there’s an atmosphere of intimidation, a natural animal caution, in the air right now. More than one individual said they’d love to help, but couldn’t afford to be seen talking to me. Given the threats and physical violence that have accompanied prior reporting on the issue of violence against prisoners, much of my time was spent corroborating facts and triple-checking the language of the article. I expect that some will still find it provocative.

The evening before my submission deadline, I talked for about two hours with a chief from John Bule’s island of Paama. I was interested to know how such an affair would be dealt with in kastom. The chief replied emphatically that these events simply could not have happened in the village.

I can’t replicate here the nuance and indirection of formal Bislama rhetoric. A poor translation will have to suffice:

Two generations ago, said the chief, John Bule would never have been allowed to stray as far as he did. According to the chief, a serial transgressor like Bule would have faced an escalating series of fines and penalties, authorised by the chief and enforced by the young men of the village. The alternatives painted by the chief were these: Bule would either have been intimidated sufficiently to come back into the fold, where he would have been welcomed, or his execution would have been ordered. Either would have occurred long before his final arrest, detention and unsanctioned death.

Two conclusions were offered:

  1. Bule reached this point of deadly crisis because a gap has appeared in society, where neither kastom nor the law operate as they should. The distance from island to town, the newfound mobility affecting Vanuatu society, has left so-called ‘town’ chiefs with little power to enforce their views. While many chiefs – this one included – serve a useful and active role in their communities, that role has become more advisory than authoritative.
  2. Because he’d passed beyond kastom’s ken, the chief felt there was nothing he could do but wash his hands of the whole unfortunate affair. “Bule i mestem rod long taem finis,” he told me. By ignoring the counsel of his family and his community, Bule had arrived in a place where helping hands could no longer reach him.

The chief refused to be drawn into a discussion of the propriety of the actions of those who arrested Bule. That, he said, was the Law, and had nothing to do with kastom.

While caution was the byword during the composition process, some people encouraged me to state plainly that the key problem highlighted by this tragic sequence of events was that the VMF, Vanuatu’s paramilitary force, was acting beyond its authority. They’d been instructed to assist with the search and return to jail of all escaped prisoners, but, I was told, there was no reason for them to hold Bule for ‘questioning’. Given that Correctional Services staff have been present at the temporary detention facility in the VMF barracks, some said, Bule should have been handed over immediately. They went on to say that even if questioning were necessary, that was the Police’s role.

Similar implications were drawn from the arrival in hospital of runaway criminal Jacky Saul, who was photographed being escorted back to Port Vila following his attempted escape to Southwest Bay on Malekula island. (The local community cooperated with authorities and facilitated his peaceful return to custody.) The photos show Saul, apparently unhurt, walking handcuffed between two individuals in plain clothes. Some time later, he was reported to have arrived in Vila Central hospital with both legs and one hand broken.

In a moving article that appeared in the same Daily Post issue as my column, Saul’s father appealed to people’s sense of humanity, denouncing the VMF’s actions as immoral and unlawful.

Opposition leader Sato Kilman made a statement this week decrying what he characterised as an undisciplined and unlawful atmosphere permeating the VMF.

But here’s the thing: The people who arrested John Bule were in plain clothes. The vehicles they used were not positively identified as belonging to any particular government agency. The unsigned statement issued from the Prime Ministers Office spoke only of ‘officials’ detaining and questioning Bule. The VMF themselves have not yet commented publicly. Neither have the Police or the Correctional Services department.

Despite the strong circumstantial evidence and vehement protestations from some informed sources, I was cautioned not to make any direct allegations of VMF involvement in this affair. Because no one was willing to go on the record, and there was no hard evidence supporting these assertions, I had no choice but to accept that advice.

If and when the findings of the Commission of Inquiry into last year’s prisoner protest are made public, I am told, one of the key points will be the involvement of the Vanuatu Mobile Force in acts of violence. Allegations have been made that prisoners were removed from Correctional Services custody when most of these alleged acts occurred, then returned, injured and in obvious distress. We can only hope that the Minister of Justice will make the report public sooner than later.

But until that time, we have to avoid jumping to conclusions, no matter how clear they may seem.

My greatest concern in this apparent spiral of violence, escape and retaliation is that people will find themselves in a position where they feel they have nothing to lose. It seems clear that many – if not all – of the prisoners currently being held feel this way. They are reportedly conducting a mass hunger strike as I write this.

But I worry about what will happen if and when people are actually charged with assault, battery, manslaughter or even murder against a prisoner. Surely they’ll feel that, with current facilities as they are right now, incarceration is as close to a death sentence as makes no difference.

This is precisely why we have to have some truth-telling; it’s why we have to short-circuit the cycle of violence that seems to be engulfing us. I don’t so much want to see someone ‘pay’ for what they’ve done; I want to see it stop.

The old chief from Paama was right in one regard: Until people come back of their own volition into the arms of their community, they are beyond our ability to help them. I only hope that everyone – captor and captive alike – reflects carefully on that.