Tuilaepa's judiciary attacks too far

The caretaker Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, a man not known for his diplomatic qualities, has been inching up his attacks on the nation’s judiciary noticeably of late. 

His casual disregard for democratic norms and checks and balances has been bad for democracy, our international image but also faith in the final line between truth and consequence in every civilised society. 

He has taken two distinct lines of attack.

The first has taken the form of vague denunciations of unnamed members of the bench; we even last year saw Tuilaepa trashing the norms not just of Parliamentary democracy but the judicial process itself. 

Last March the then-Prime Minister wrote to the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration chief demanding an explanation as to why two men accused of conspiring to assassinate him had been granted bail. 

One does not need a Bachelor of Laws with honours to see the problem with behaving in this fashion. Tuilaepa was not only conflicted but riding roughshod over centuries-old norms about the separation of powers and he cared barely a hang.

Ironically, Tuilaepa’s actions appear possible to undermine the Government’s case to extradite a fourth man accused of being party to the plot produced the letter while opposing a movement to be extradited to Samoa to face charges. 

How could a man face a fair trial in a case involving the Prime Minister when the latter is prepared to intervene in the justice system so readily, his lawyers argued? Even those of us with faith in the independence of the Samoan judicial system found this a compelling argument and so too yet might Australian judges.  

Then we have seen unsubstantiated attacks on unnamed judges whose integrity has been impugned by shocking suggestions that they are issuing verbal decisions to mask the fact that they are making decisions up on the fly to fit their political ideologies. 

Written decisions, Tuilaepa claimed, were then produced to follow, implying a judge would lack the integrity to decide a case on its merits but rather gin up an explanation for his or her reasons after the fact. 

More recently we saw what experts in Samoa and from bodies such as the United Nations described as the irreversible damage to the rule of law by the December passage of three laws overhauling the judiciary. With the creation of an independent Land and Titles Court and the increasing ability to remove judges from the Supreme Court a deliberate move was made to change the functioning of our court system forever - and not for the better. 

But this week, on the eve of an election that appears certain to be determined, at least in its first instance by the judiciary, Tuilaepa made yet another egregious attack. And for its sheer audacity, it ranks among these examples.

Again choosing as his target unnamed judges - with the exception of the Chief Justice, His Honour Satiu Simativa Perese - he accused them of having met with his rival for the Prime Ministership, Fiame Naomi Mataafa. 

This is extraordinary behaviour. In doing so, Tuilaepa has essentially defamed an entire branch of Government and accused them of out and out corruption and dereliction of duty.

He has cast his criticism in a roundabout fashion that may afford him some legal protection from a civil suit from the leader of the Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party.

But this takes nothing away from the behaviour of our caretaker Prime Minister as he prepares to dig in for what could be his final political stand, one to be decided, initially at least, in the courthouse. 

As was reported on the front page of the Weekend Observer, the Prime Minister carpet-bombed the integrity of an entire branch of Government as the legal battle for the election begins to rev up (“Unnamed Judges supporting F.A.S.T.: Tuilaepa claims”). 

During his usual 2AP programme featuring an “interview” with an employee of the state-owned media station the caretaker Prime Minister about reports circulating that Fiame had met with a number of judges.

This is not journalism. This is rumour-mongering. 

But it was egged on by Tuilaepa, who again couched his words in just such a way as to avoid making any specific allegation. 

The caretaker Prime Minister said a “number of reports” have reached him regarding senior judges who were seen meeting with Fiame. 

“There are many reports about the said meeting,” he alleged. 

“However, for me, I believe in the independence of the judiciary and leave them to conduct their duties in accordance with honesty. 

“The reports circulating are based on what people have seen, but I will try to remove [those reports] from my head and I will leave the judges to conduct their [duty] in line with honesty and independence.”

How convenient a time for the Prime Minister to impugn an entire branch of this Government, just as it is about to sit in judgement on whether he will continue as the leader of this nation after 22 years in power.

But we say if Tuilaepa has evidence of such behaviour, such deeply dishonourable conduct, then we invite him to step forward and provide evidence of it; to stake his name and reputation behind it. 

We will be right there to report these details prominently and in these pages. 

“I believe in the independence of the court; the dignity and the integrity of the court system,” Tuilaepa later continued.

Hogwash. That caveat does nothing to erase the debasement of an entire branch of Government that was just issued from his mouth.

This newspaper applauds the response provided by the Secretary of the Judicial Service Commission (J.S.C.) and Chief Executive Officer for the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration, Moliei Vaai: 

"I cannot make comments on claims or allegations that I have not received,” she said. 

"Neither the Court nor the J.S.C. can comment on rumours, however, intentioned.”

This was the only right and moral response to allegations of such gravity and without substance. 

Winning Government is the primal instinct of any politician; it is, after all, the job description. 

But how far he might go to achieve such ends is ultimately the measure of a man - not the leader. 

Seeking to do indiscriminate damage to an institution so vital to our nation’s present and its future speaks volumes indeed. 

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