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President expresses shame

Tuesday 13 October 2015 | Published in Regional


PORT VILA – A visibly shaken president of Vanuatu has addressed the nation expressing “shame and sorrow” after his acting president used interim executive powers to issue pardons to recently-convicted MPs, including himself, on Sunday.

“I will clean the dirt from my backyard,” president Baldwin Lonsdale said in his address Monday evening, adding: “We as a nation have to stop these crooked ways”.

“The power of mercy is vested in the president and not the acting president,” he said.

Parliamentary speaker Marcellino Pipite, acting with executive power according to the constitution while president Lonsdale was abroad, issued pardons for himself and 13 other MPs following their convictions for bribery by the Supreme Court last Friday.

Justice Mary Sey ruled that payments amounting to 35 million vatu ($452,000) were corruptly made by the deputy prime minister, corruptly received, and designed to influence MPs in their capacity as public officials.

Pipite said the unprecedented move to pardon himself and his convicted colleagues was made in the best interests of the country and to avoid political instability seen elsewhere in the Pacific in recent decades.

In response, President Lonsdale said “no-one is above the law”, and the constitution should be amended so the speaker cannot become acting president as the speaker occupied a political position.

Lonsdale said all options were being considered and he would rule on the outcome in the coming days, not weeks.

Pipite and the 13 other MPs, including deputy prime minister Moana Carcasses, were due to be sentenced on October 22.

They were facing a maximum of 10 years in jail along with the loss of their seats in parliament.

Vanuatu finance minister Willie Jimmy, who pleaded guilty, did not have his conviction overturned in the announcement.

It has emerged that Pepite also issued an order suspending the nation’s ombudsman, Kalkot Mataskelekele, while in his acting capacity as president.

Mataskelekele, a former president himself, is refusing to accept its legality and insists he is still the ombudsman.

He said the letter, which he only received this morning, is dated October 10 and “alleges to suspend me because of alleged gross misconduct”.

“I have conferred with senior staff of the ombudsman’s office and especially the principle legal officer, and looking at the Ombudsman’s Act myself there’s nothing at all in the Ombudsman’s Act referring to the power of a president to suspend an ombudsman,” he said.

“I am still the ombudsman of Vanuatu, and I am in the throes of writing a letter to the head of state to seek his advice on the allegations of the acting president, previously.”

Under Vanuatu law, the speaker acts as president when the latter is travelling overseas and has the powers of pardoning, commutation and reduction of sentences.

President Baldwin Lonsdale returned to Port Vila late Sunday afternoon, ending Pipite’s brief but dramatic acting role.