Tonga: Four guilty over ferry disaster that killed 74

Friday, April 1, 2011

Tonga's largest criminal trial today ended in the conviction of four men and the state shipping firm over the sinking of MV Princess Ashika. 74 were killed when the ferry went down off Nuku'alofa in 2009.

The vast majority of bodies remain missing. Only two were recovered, including one Tongan — a 21-year-old mother called Vae Fetu'u Taufa. The Shipping Corporation of Polynesia (SCP) manager John Jonesse, acting director of the national department for ports and marine affairs Viliami Tu'ipulotu, captain Viliami Makahokovalu Tuputupu, and first mate Semisi Pomale were all convicted of her manslaughter by negligence. The men were remanded into custody over the weekend to await sentencing; they face a maximum of ten years in jail.

Justice Shuster cited the severity of the offences in denying bail, which was requested by Laki Niu and Vuna Fa'otusia, attorneys representing the accused.

Built in the early 1970s, by 1985 the ferry was found to be unseaworthy and hence not suited for use in deep water. When SCP bought it in 2009 from Fiji, it suffered from "huge" rusting holes and on August 5 that year sank in deep water during a storm. Most passengers were sleeping below deck when the ship was lost near the island of Tongatapu, where it remains on the seabed. No women or children escaped.

The six-week trial followed a royal commission of inquiry that found Jonesse, from New Zealand, bought Princess Ashika "without any proper due diligence, surveys, inspections, valuations, documentation or proper inquiry having been completed." It also concluded Tuputupu chose to sail that day despite the ship leaking on other journeys. The inquiry branded the loss "a result of systemic and individual failures... The tragedy is that they were all easily preventable and the deaths were completely senseless."

SCP was convicted of charges concerning the vessel's seaworthiness by the jury, which sat in Tonga's parliament building after the trial's high profile saw it moved away from Nuku'alofa Supreme Court.

Jonesse and Tuputupu have both been convicted of five counts of taking an unseaworthy ship to sea under the Shipping Act, for voyages held on July 3, July 9, July 15, July 23 and August 5. Jonesse is also guilty of forgery and knowingly using a forged document.