Sun, Oct 01, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Solomons official bolts after sex arrest

ACCUSATIONS Already testy relations between Australia and the Solomon Islands soured further as officials argued over the arrest of a controversial Australian lawyer


The Solomon Islands' new attorney-general has vanished hours after Australian officials vowed to extradite him on child sex charges, media reports said yesterday.

Controversial Australian lawyer Julian Moti was arrested on Friday in Port Moresby at the Australian government's request, triggering strong protests from Honiara.

A Papua New Guinea magistrate released him on bail late on Friday, but his failure to return to court the following day led Papua New Guinea police to speculate that he had fled to another island, the Australian Associated Press said.

"We think he's on the flight to Buka," chief sergeant Benson Pai reportedly said, referring to a Papuan island near the Solomons.

Police said they had arranged for Moti to be arrested upon touchdown in Buka early yesterday afternoon. But an officer on the ground in Buka told reporters he was unaware of any such police action.

Australian authorities want Moti extradited to face prosecution for an alleged child sex offence in Vanuatu.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer earlier yesterday said Australia would seek Moti's extradition as soon as possible.

"We have an extradition agreement with PNG [Papua New Guinea]. We would expect that to be followed," Downer told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in an interview published on its Web site.

Moti's arrest has further damaged the relationship between Canberra and Honiara, which soured this month when Australian Ambassador Patrick Cole was expelled for allegedly interfering in local politics.

Moti, who was en route to Honiara, was picked up by police at Jacksons' Airport off a flight from Singapore.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, a personal friend of Moti, called the arrest a "serious violation" of the country's sovereignty and said that his government would make high-level protests to Canberra.

However, Downer said it was a matter for the Australian police rather than the government.

"Mr Sogavare needs to understand that you can't just -- even when you're in a powerful position like being a PM -- ride roughshod over the courts and legal processes," he said.

Sogavare pushed through Moti's appointment as the Solomons' attorney-general last week, despite opposition from the country's bar association and Australia.

In 2001, Moti was barred from the Solomon Islands for interfering in domestic politics. The ban was lifted after Sogavare came to power in May.

In 1997 the lawyer beat charges of raping a 13-year-old girl in Vanuatu, but later settled a civil action taken against him by her family.

Moti was Sogavare's choice to replace Primo Afeau, who fell out with the prime minister over the terms of reference for an inquiry into April riots targeting ethnic Chinese, which Australian troops were called in to quell.

Sogavare accused ambassador Cole of trying to stop the inquiry, which Canberra believes is designed to get two jailed MPs off charges of inciting the violence and instead focus on Australian police commanders' handling of them.

Australia also led a peacekeeping force to the Solomons in July 2003 to help end years of ethnic strife that had caused a breakdown of law and order in the impoverished island nation.

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