Kiribati’s government has dramatically escalated its campaign against the judiciary, suspending the country’s three remaining senior judges after they blocked the deportation of High Court justice and Australian citizen David Lambourne.
The decision effectively leaves Kiribati without any functioning high-level courts, deepening its legal and constitutional crisis.
The office of Kiribati President Taneti Maamau responded furiously when the Kiribati Court of Appeal — which is staffed by three retired New Zealand judges — blocked its move to deport Lambourne, labelling the government’s actions unconstitutional.
The Kiribati government had previously tried — unsuccessfully — to force Lambourne onto a plane and out of the country, resulting in an extraordinary stand-off on the airport tarmac.
Last month, the Court of Appeal quashed the deportation order and ordered the government to reinstate him.
It also dismissed Kiribati’s argument that Lambourne was a security risk, calling it “far-fetched”, and directed that he be issued a new visa to allow him to stay in the country.
But now Maamau has moved to immediately suspend the three Court of Appeal justices who made that ruling — Paul Heath, Peter Blanchard and Rodney Hansen.
All three men are retired senior New Zealand judges and distinguished jurists. They have been referred to a tribunal set up by Kiribati’s government to determine whether they should stay in office, although how this will tribunal will function and who will sit on it is not yet clear.
While Lambourne still remains in Kiribati, he has not yet been issued a new visa permitting him to stay in the country, despite the orders issued by the Court of Appeal.
The dispute has its roots in a longstanding disagreement over tenure, but has stoked broader concerns about the rule of law and independence of the judiciary in Kiribati.
The government claimed Lambourne breached the constitution by “demanding to be paid as a judge for life”, saying that he was only ever appointed to a three-year term.
But Lambourne said he suspects he is being targeted because he is married to Kiribati’s Opposition Leader, Tessie Lambourne.
In a submission to the Court of Appeals last month, lawyers representing the Attorney-General warned that Taneti Maamau might suspend the court if it did not “self-correct”.
After the court issued its judgement, Maamau’s office issued another angry screed, saying it was “gravely concerned by the continuing attack on the rule of law by a few judges, who refuse to honour the constitution, laws and customs by issuing autocratic mandates”.
“The government of Kiribati will continue to stress that it is vital that judicial integrity underpin judicial independence, so the rule of law does not become a vehicle for autocratic judicial tyranny that robs our good and honest people of their sovereignty,” it said.
Kiribati’s chief justice, New Zealand judge William Hastings, was also suspended in June this year after the government accused him of “misconduct”.
Legal groups in Australia — as well as a UN Special Rapporteur — have repeatedly criticised Kiribati’s actions, saying the government has made a series of moves to undermine judicial independence and interfere with judges’ security of tenure.
SOURCE: ABC PACIFIC/PACNEWS