Tongan passport row stirs unrest

Issue 

By David Robie

AUCKLAND — Tonga's hasty legal juggling act to grant citizenship to more than 400 foreigners has done little to quell unrest in the South Pacific kingdom over the passport scandal.

Although commoner parliamentarian and pro-democracy campaigner 'Akilisi Pohiva agreed earlier this month to his court case being dismissed, he has won a remarkable moral victory by forcing the government to admit the illegality of the passports and change the constitution.

Weeping and praying, more than 2500 protesters — led by Roman Catholic Bishop Patelesio Finau, clergy, Pohiva and other commoner MPs — marched to the royal palace in an unprecedented demonstration a week after legal proceedings ended. They presented two petitions to King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV through his private secretary.

The king was urged to cancel citizenship for the 426 foreigners and sack the police minister, 'Akau'ola, who has accepted responsibility for the illegal sales of naturalisation certificates and passports.

However, the king has now been reported by the government-run newspaper, Tonga Chronicle, to have said the kingdom could not afford to cancel the passports. He said changing foreign exchange rates, plus possible lawsuits by passport holders, meant that paying out refunds and declaring the documents null and void would be too heavy a burden for the country.

A British protectorate between 1900 and 1970, Tonga has a jaded constitution written in 1875. Under this constitution, a 30-seat parliament has 10 cabinet members plus two governors appointed by the king, nine members chosen by the 33 nobles, and nine people's representatives elected by 100,000 commoners.

Imelda Marcos is the best-known foreigner to get a Tongan passport. The former Hong Kong Stock Exchange chief, Ronald Li, who is serving a four-year jail term for bribery, and textile billionaire Chen Din-hwa are also reportedly among the now legal passport holders.

Tonga has been operating the illegal passports scheme since 1983. Two kinds of Tongan passport have been for sale to foreigners: the Tonga Protected Persons Passport and the Tongan National Passport (issued to those who became naturalised).

The "protected person" passport was created in 1983 as a travel document for non-Tongans who had difficulties travelling beyond their own national boundaries. They sold for US$10,000 each.

However, because this document did not give automatic right of residence in Tonga, a growing number of countries — including Australia and New Zealand — did not recognise it. In 1984 the king was given power to grant naturalisation to any foreigner of "good character on humanitarian grounds". The naturalisation fee was US$20,000, but additional fees could take the price tag up to more than $35,000.

Commoner MPs and their lawyers exposed the scheme and challenged it as unconstitutional.

In 1988, 'Akau'ola admitted that the 1984 legislation was unconstitutional. The 1984 act was then repealed by the 1988 Nationality Act.

It is uncertain how many foreigners have been naturalised or how much money has been made from the scam, since these figures have not been revealed in parliament — but it is believed that considerably more than the 426 people named in the Government Gazette may have acquired passports.

Late in 1989, Pohiva filed a lawsuit against the kingdom and the police minister, claiming the passports should be declared invalid because the sales were unconstitutional and illegal.

After lengthy legal proceedings, the case was finally about to go before the Supreme Court. However, four days earlier the government suddenly called an emergency session of parliament in an attempt to legalise its passport practices over the previous six years.

Parliament was bitterly divided between the cabinet and the nobles, who supported the passport legislation, and seven of the commoner MPs, who argued it would be damaging for Tonga to amend the constitution to legalise a mistake.

Pohiva and two other commoner MPs walked out of parliament, and the legislative and constitutional changes were made by a 15-4 vote.

When Pohiva agreed on March 1 to the dismissal of his court case and was awarded NZ$23,500 in costs, he declared he had been vindicated by the government's actions.

"But the case does not end", he said. "It marks a new page in our history."

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