King Faipopo in shock last-minute bid to plead not guilty

A man accused of defaming the Prime Minister has applied for a dramatic eleventh-hour retraction of his guilty plea to a charge of criminal libel.

The attempt by Malele Atofu Paulo – also known as King Faipopo – to revert back to a not guilty plea came just before he was due to be sentenced in the District Court on Friday. 

If approved, it sets Paulo up for a potential courtroom showdown with Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, who recently expressed his keenness to testify in the case and clear his name.

Paulo's defence lawyer, Unasa Iuni Sapolu, also filed an application to withdraw as counsel for the defendant.

Paulo’s decision to vacate his plea followed the abandonment of a proposed restorative justice process involving he and the Prime Minister when it did not satisfy the principles of the process to proceed. 

Unasa told the Court that, under the terms of a deal, the prosecution would withdraw 14 other charges and Paulo would instead plead guilty to the one charge and which could be resolved in restorative justice.  (Restorative justice is an attempt to broker a non-judicial outcome involving a meeting between the complainant and the defendant).

“Not only that there was also neutrality position from prosecution towards an application for discharge without conviction,” she said.  

“Our respectful submission is that [Paulo feels it] lured him towards the settlement and accepted that one charge. 

“Now there is no restorative justice and we have the submissions towards sentencing by prosecution which shifted its position I supposed because there position of neutrality was subject to restorative of justice.” 

Unasa said the defendant still seeks to pursue restorative justice. 

Because of the new development "clash[ing] with original instructions received"  Unasa said she could not continue to act for Malele and asked the Judge for guidance on the matter. 

The Court heard that one of the principles that needs to be satisfied in order for the proposed restorative justice to proceed is for Paulo to acknowledge the harm of his actions caused on the complainant. 

District Court Judge, Alalatoa Rosella Papalii said, according to a report from a psychiatrist, her observation is that Paulo is not forthcoming in discussions.

“She saw there was a risk to the complainant if a [restorative justice process] was to proceed but noting the complainant [wants] to stop this from happening especially if the accused is to return to Australia that too did not come forth with what she had in mind with [restorative justice] to proceed.” 

 In the same report it was suggested that a mediation is an alternative for the parties to consider. 

Judge Alalatoa said the defence and prosecution had been productive in the case but “I do not appreciate him (Malele) trying to dictate how you are proceeding forward with the matter.”

She noted that the 14 charges that were withdrawn by leave of the Court had strong evidence from prosecution defence had tried to come up with a solution that will be beneficial to the defendant.  

Furthermore she added any application to vacate plea must be treated with utmost care considering that prosecution can reinstate the 14 charges. 

In response to the application to vacate plea prosecutor Silupevaelei Rexona Titi objected.

She argued that report by the Commission that was provided after discussion with the defendant indicated that it was Malele that caused the restorative justice not to be successful. 

“It seems that he wants to dictate the way restorative of justice should be instead of him coming to suitable (solution) in the system,” she said. 

That is our understanding of the findings that she couldn’t find it would be successful because of his continued refusal to acknowledge some sort of impact on his misbehaviour.” 

Silupe said that the application to change plea does not satisfy the test of the application to vacate guilty plea. 

Judge Alalatoa then adjourned the matter to be called in Chamber for the counsels to discuss the application to vacate plea and possible mediation, if the parties agreed before she makes a decision to accept the application to vacate a plea or not.

Last month Tuilaepa said he would take the stand against Paulo if necessary, in view of the seriousness of the allegations made, its cost to his reputation in Samoa and internationally and the impact on his family.

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