Sunday 18 February 2018

The sex abuse trial casting a long cloud over a tiny island

Neil Tweedie

The men of Pitcairn have been busy constructing a new jail - a small, prefabricated affair, consisting of just six cells. They have an incentive to build it well - seven of them could soon be taking up residence there.

They are the defendants in what is certain to be one of the strangest trials in legal history, a unique exercise that will bring British justice to one of the most remote inhabited islands on Earth.

Pitcairn Island is Britain's last outpost in the Pacific, a speck of volcanic rock, two miles long and one mile wide, inhabited by just 47 people.

The majority of them can trace their lineage back to the mutineers who, under Fletcher Christian, sought refuge there in 1790 after seizing control of the HMS Bounty - which was transporting breadfruit seedlings to the Caribbean - from Lieutenant William Bligh.

The seven men on trial represent half the adult male population of the island and will, next week, answer to charges including allegations of rape and other forms of sexual abuse involving young girls once resident on Pitcairn. There are 96 separate allegations, stretching back to the 1960s and involving 12 females, but investigators believe they represent only a fraction of the alleged sex crimes that may have been committed on Pitcairn by the men.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, set to last seven weeks, Pitcairn is unlikely ever to be the same again.

The island has obtained a mythical status during the past 200 years, since Christian led a small band of mutineers in search of a refuge from the Royal Navy. The British sailors brought with them to Pitcairn a group of Tahitian women and men - the latter believed to be used as virtual slaves. Years of internecine fighting followed, during which Christian was either killed or committed suicide. By 1800, only one mutineer, John Adams, remained. Pitcairners remain proud of their heritage and still take offence when revisionists suggest that Bligh was not quite the tyrant he was first made out to be.

The small community is, by necessity, interdependent. Decisions require consensus among the island council, though there appears to be a reluctance within the community to address issues that would result in open conflict.

The most consistent feature of the community is its desire for privacy. Visitors are not encouraged and the council has the right to veto applications from individuals it considers unsuitable.

So it would have been galling for the island's population to have witnessed earlier this week the court staff embarking on their journey to Pitcairn from the French Polynesian island of Mangareva. The 20-strong legal contingent, headed by three New Zealand judges, will conduct the trial without a jury.

The influx of outsiders will almost double the adult population of Pitcairn and accommodation will have to be found in unlikely places - even in the new prison cells.

Anticipation of the trial and its outcome has led to heightened tension on the island, particularly after Richard Fell, the New Zealand-based governor of Pitcairn, requested that all firearms be surrendered before the start of proceedings.

The trial will cost at least ?5m. Critics of the British policy of pursuing the matter through the courts refer to the fact that Britain has spent only ?1.5m on Pitcairn during the past decade.

British officials say there can be no alternative to the legal proceedings, allegations having been made by adult females in five different locations. None of the women will testify on Pitcairn and some have stated they will never return to the island, but nine will appear by video link from New Zealand. Supporters of the defendants have mounted a vociferous lobbying campaign on the internet, accusing the British of meddling in Pitcairn's affairs.

Whatever its outcome, the trial will have a lasting effect on life in Pitcairn. Pitcairners make their living from trading with merchant vessels that pass by only occasionally. Because there is no natural harbour, the able-bodied males on the island row out to the passing ships in two longboats. It is unclear how this important aspect of Pitcairn's economy would function if seven of the men on the island were locked up.

There have been suggestions that they would be released to man the boats before returning to their cells. But such a concession in a sentence for a serious sexual offence would be odd indeed.

The investigation into allegations of child abuse began in 1996 and gained impetus in 1999 when Gail Cox, a police constable from Kent who went to the island to teach community policing, uncovered further allegations.

Under Operation Unique, detectives from Kent have travelled to five countries, including Britain and the US, to seek evidence from alleged victims.

Two social workers are now based on the island to safeguard the interests of children, in addition to two officers from the British ministry of defence police. If the men are found guilty, five prison warders from New Zealand will be brought to the island.

The defendants have attempted to argue that, as descendants of mutineers, they are not subject to British law. Their application will be considered by the Privy Council in London early next month.

The encroachment of the outside world that will accompany the legal process will almost certainly spell the diminution of Pitcairn culture. The community has its own language, Pitkern, a form of pidgin English that combines Tahitian and 18th-century Royal Navy slang.

Some people on Pitcairn claim that the trial is part of a British plot to shut down the island and prevent it becoming an increasingly irksome financial burden. They point to London's failure to provide the island with decent paved roads or even a harbour that would allow the safe unloading of supplies. As one female Pitcairner explains: "The British have come in here and said forget your laws, this is our law."

But Mr Fell, who also serves as the British High Commissioner in New Zealand, maintains that "there is no dastardly plot to close the place down" and insists that Pitcairn is bound by British law.

"My job," he says, "is to ensure that, given the serious nature of the allegations, we put in place the means by which justice can be done."

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