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Cooks community ‘angry and bitter’ over rise in public fighting

Thursday 22 February 2024 | Written by Joanne Holden | Published in Court, National


Cooks community ‘angry and bitter’ over rise in public fighting

Public fighting is on the rise in the Cook Islands, a Justice of the Peace says.

Those who choose to fight in a public place were blasted as “selfish” by Justice of the Peace John Whitta during the sentencing of three men who were involved in a brawl which erupted outside Super Brown Nikao on the afternoon of January 28, 2024.

The fight occurred less than three months after a brawl at Rehab Rarotonga landed two nightclub employees in hospital with stab wounds.

Albert Junior Nicholas, 18, Rui Meti Nicholas, 19, and Juranice Marsters, 17, appeared before JP Whitta in the Criminal Court in Rarotonga on Wednesday, each man having pleaded guilty to fighting in a public place.

“Any mass fight not only poses a risk of injury for yourselves, but for those around you,” JP Whitta said.

“I doubt you made an effort to move innocent people out of the way, you never checked to see how your actions would impact others.”

JP Whitta said instances of public fighting were increasing in the Cook Islands – the scuffle the three men took part in evoking an “angry and bitter” response from the community, with some viewing the sentences being handed to brawlers as “light”.

“However, public sentiment is not to be taken into account in sentencing,” JP Whitta said.

Police prosecutor Senior Sergeant Fairoa Tararo said most of the people who had been sentenced for their role in the fight had been ordered to come up if called upon within three months, submitting that this would be an appropriate penalty for the three men now before the court.

JP Whitta agreed, rejecting a submission from defence lawyer Tai Nicholas that the men should be discharged without conviction.

“If you don’t offend in the next three months, nothing happens,” JP Whitta said.

“If you do, you will be brought back and dealt with on the new matter and possibly re-sentenced on this one.”

Tararo said Albert, the son of the newly-appointed Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister, threw the first punch in the fight after a group of “boys from Rutaki” began acting “aggressively” towards him and his friends from Avatiu as they sat at a table outside the store.

Rui was at the store fetching something to eat when he saw Albert fighting, jumping in to pull his cousin out of the scuffle and swinging his fist at a person close by. The punch missed.

Tararo said Marsters also joined the fight, exchanging blows with two people.

JP Whitta said Albert was “at the centre of the brawl” while Rui and Marsters squandered opportunities to de-escalate the situation, choosing instead to be “actively involved”.

“Word went around that the Police were coming, and the fight dispersed.”

Tararo said none of the men had prior convictions.

Defence lawyer Tai Nicholas submitted that Albert, Rui, and Marsters should be discharged without conviction because of the “direct and indirect consequences” of having a criminal record.

He said Marsters wanted to be able to freely travel to Australia to look for better job opportunities, while Albert was a “promising sportsman” who would “no doubt represent the country at some stage”.

Meanwhile, Rui – who lives in Melbourne and had been in Rarotonga on holiday when the fight broke out – was a “promising boxer” with aspirations of representing Australia or the Cook Islands.

“A conviction would affect this,” he said.

The men’s parents were not present in court so their sons could “take ownership and responsibility for their actions”, he said.

“A couple of the defendants have offered an apology to the Rutaki boys.”

JP Whitta dismissed the application for a discharge without conviction, saying “there’s a need for consistency” in sentencing the many brawlers involved in the fight.

JP Whitta ordered Albert, Rui, and Marsters to pay $50 each for court costs.