A Nation of Laws

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Shortly before noon on Sunday, March 29, two Toyota pickup trucks arrived at a Malapoa residence occupied by 21 year old escaped convict John Bule, his girlfriend and their daughter, aged less than 2. Several men in plain clothes dismounted and entered the house in search of Bule.

Loud voices were heard from within the house, and 3 shots were fired, apparently as a warning. Nobody was hurt. Shortly afterward, John and his girlfriend were escorted from the house, their hands bound behind their back. They were placed together in the back of one truck and driven to the VMF barracks.

The girlfriend later recalled that she pleaded with those holding her to be allowed to return to her home and her daughter. She told them she’d done nothing wrong.

As she pled with them, she says, she heard her boyfriend John crying out in pain in an adjacent room.
Shortly before 2:00 p.m. that same day, authorities brought John Bule to Vila Central Hospital for treatment of wounds to both legs, both arms, his ribs, back and head, which had multiple lacerations, including a gash above his left eye about 10 cm. long and 3 cm. wide.

Soon after 4:00 p.m. Sunday, John Bule was pronounced dead.

Hospital authorities have not yet commented officially on the cause of death.

An unsigned statement issued from within the Prime Minister’s Office claimed that John Bule was apprehended in the Malapoa neighbourhood, then ‘questioned’ for 30-40 minutes. The statement asserts that he then tried to run away and was injured during the ensuing struggle. It goes on to say that a Commission of Inquiry will be created to investigate the circumstances of Bule’s death.

Available evidence shows that John Bule sustained grievous injuries over his entire body. This wasn’t the first time he’d sustained injuries in custody. On December 20th last year, when inmates burnt down the Stade prison and marched in protest to the Chiefs’ Nakamal, Bule was spotted with both legs bandaged. Unable to walk unaided and in obvious pain, he was supported by two of his fellow prisoners.

Roadside rumour and kava bar conversations tend toward simplistic conclusions, and the case of John Bule is no different. One otherwise sweet-natured mother uttered, “An escaped prisoner is dead? Good!” She accompanied the statement with a single, swift nod of her head.

But it’s not that simple. It never is. Issues that in the abstract appeal to our most predatory feelings take on a completely different complexion when they affect us, or our loved ones. John Bule was not that woman’s son, but he did belong to someone.

While we sometimes feel that Hammurabi may have had it right, John Bule didn’t deserve to die like this. Not according to any law I can find. Neither the New Testament, kastom nor Common Law condone this kind of senseless death.

Vanuatu is a nation of laws. In real terms, it operates using a mostly pragmatic mix of kastom, Christianity and Common Law. First and foremost, family ties bind us together, guided by our chiefs and our churches. The law is our ultimate arbiter.

Let me ask, then: What chief, what pastor, what judge can sit idly by when something like this happens? The answer, I am ashamed to say, appears to be: Most of them.

We’ve known about problems in the prisons for years now. We’ve seen what happens when people, jailed and jailer alike, are hidden from the public eye. If the testimony of Prison Report 2008 is to be trusted, no sooner did convicts pass out of our sight then they were susceptible to treatment that contravenes not only the law, but our own collective conscience.

And yet, because it’s hidden from our sight, we allow it to go on.

While I confess to an unusual anger over this incident, I don’t especially blame the men who arrested Bule. Just a few days before these events, I spoke with one of them. The long, late hours of constant, often fruitless searching had taken their toll. It was clear to me that his good nature, his professionalism even, were being strained by the effort.

But it is precisely because of such stresses that the enforcement of rules, discipline and routine is critical to Vanuatu’s Correctional Services. Had Bule been returned immediately to their custody, there is every reason to believe he would be alive today.

Donors, politicians, chiefs and especially the staff of the Correctional Services Department have invested time, money and no small emotion over the years to improve things. All to no avail. They failed because we, as a society, didn’t care to know what was happening on the other side of the prison wall.

We are all of us responsible for this tragic death.

When Correctional Services announced their intention to build a proper detention facility, a chorus of voices complained about money wasted on a ‘country club for criminals’. When the truth about conditions inside the prison became clear, we tut-tutted soberly, and turned our heads.

When journalists broke the news of prisoner protests, they were threatened and even beaten.

Though a Commission of Inquiry was established to investigate the issue, the public has yet to see its report. An article in the Independent quoting Professor Don Patterson, a Commission member, appears to corroborate some – if not all – of the prisoners’ claims.

Not to diminish the importance of this document and the urgent need to publish it, but we already know what the problem is. The answer too, should be clear. We need to recognise that prisoners are not outcasts – inmates, even escapees, are not magically transported out of society’s purview. We still bear responsibility for their lives.

We all abhor the actions of those we send to prison. So why, then, would we choose to emulate them? Since when was violence – absent justice, orders or oversight – the solution to anything?

What chief would stand up and explain to the Paama community that Bule’s death was just and deserved? What pastor would claim that sin excuses sin? What minister would state that his employees acted beyond order or instruction, but rightly?

By whose authority did John Bule die?

John Bule’s death overshadows and derogates all that we hold dear in this society. We must – all of us – work to ensure that it never happens again.