The mayor of tiny Pitcairn Island -- home to the descendants of the 18th-century HMS Bounty mutineers -- is among seven men accused in a string of sexual assaults in the isolated community dating back decades, court documents revealed yesterday.
Steve Christian, one of the island's most prominent members, is charged along with his son, Randy, and five other men on 55 charges including rape, indecent assault and gross indecency.
The court decided to reveal the identities of the accused because everyone on the island, with a population of just 47, already knew who they were and because newspapers and Internet sites outside Pitcairn's jurisdiction had already published the names, said Charles Blackie, the chief justice in the trial.
The names were unveiled as the court rejected an eleventh-hour application by the defense to halt the trials because of alleged judicial bias.
The defense had earlier said the lead judge sent to hear the case on the remote Pacific island had shown bias by bowing to pressure from Britain's minister for overseas territories to press for a trial and avoid any out-of-court settlement.
It was the latest legal challenge to the trial of the men -- who account for half of the island's adult male population -- over allegations of sex abuse dating back up to 40 years.
Blackie, one of three trial judges, declined the defense application and said the trial would commence this morning.
The charges against the men stem from 1999 when an islander told a visiting British policewoman she had been sexually abused. Since then new laws, including a child protection act, have been enacted and police and social workers have been sent to the island.
The defendants could be sentenced to lengthy prison terms if convicted in the trials, which are expected to last up to six weeks.
The size and complexity of the case is unprecedented on Pitcairn, where descendants of the mutineers on the British navy ship arrived in 1790. The inhabitants eke out a living selling postage stamps to collectors and handicrafts to tourists on passing cruise liners.
The arrival of three judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and media has almost doubled the island's population.
On Tuesday, a group of women residents on the island came to the defense of the seven charged men at a meeting, claiming the cases had been blown out of proportion and that the victims may have been coerced into testifying.
But prosecution witnesses are expected to testify via video links from New Zealand, home to many people who have fled the isolated community.
Speaking to reporters on the island, some of the women said underage sex was normal in the community.
"There's never been a rape on the island," said one resident, Carol Warren, on New Zealand television yesterday. "I was one of them, I had sex at 12. I went in fully knowing what I was doing and I wasn't forced."
"It's like a blight that's been hanging over us for way too long," said Meralda Warren, another of the residents.
The defendants had a chance to head off trials at a pretrial hearing last week, but refused to plead guilty when offered the chance -- a move that would have cut any sentence they may face.