ANALYSIS: By Dan McGarry
Justice Richard Chetwynd acquitted the three men accused of intentional assault on Florence Lengkon on Friday, accepting the defence’s submission that they had no case to answer on those specific charges.
The people of Vanuatu, however, have still to answer for their silence.
Judge Chetwynd ruled that there was indisputable evidence that Ms Lengkon was struck once “forcefully” on the head on March 13, and said that if that was the case then it is impossible that all three men could be guilty of landing the blow.
The prosecution’s case rested almost entirely on a statement submitted by two police officers, who stated that co-accused Elton Worwor put them at the scene of the crime.
But the police officers didn’t ask some very basic questions during that interview, such as how Worwor knew they were involved, whether he actually saw them strike Lengkon, and if so, which of the three of them actually struck her.
Ultimately, the evidence was ruled inadmissible. The three men charged with the assault on Florence Lengkon had no case to answer, and they were therefore acquitted of this serious charge.
But… Justice Chetwynd paused meaningfully before continuing. He scanned the packed courtroom and stated that the fact that over 50 people could have seen what happened and not one of them stepped forward to identify the culprit is “an indictment” on our society.
Anyone who has been following the case is within their rights to criticise the lack of thoroughness shown by the investigating officers. Their evident ignorance of basic interrogation and investigative procedure certainly contributed to the lack of a conviction on the assault charge.
One wonders what their Australian Federal Police (AFP) advisers have been doing this past decade.
The judge had no alternative but to acquit the three accused of assault because there was nothing that conclusively proved that any one of them struck the blow that left Lengkon’s eye bruised and swollen shut. We know that someone hit Florence Lengkon, but we still don’t know who it is.
It is admittedly a difficult thing to confront—even passively—a large group of angry men. Florence found that out yet again when she sat alone in the witness box last Tuesday and gave her testimony. Her bravery should be an example to us all.
As the week wore on, more and more people turned up to show support, but on Tuesday she stood alone.
It’s possible to sympathise with the difficult role the police play when they are required to confront an angry crowd, such as the group that gathered that day in March when tempers flared over events down at the wharf.
But let’s not make any bones about it: It’s a tough job, yes. But that’s the job you choose when you choose to join the police force.
In fairness to the police, though, this is a two-way street. If people showed a little more respect for the uniform, if they showed a little more respect for the law, then maybe these situations wouldn’t be so fraught.
I’ve spoken with ex-colonial policemen on a number of occasions, and without exception, they pine for the days when police officers were respected. It’s likely they were as much feared as respected, but let’s not put too fine a point on it.
One thing that was certainly missing then, and is still missing today, is a common understanding of the basic principles of justice and the law. It’s all well and good to complain that the law is an artificial and imposed construct that doesn’t match well with Melanesian sensibilities. That’s all true.
But that doesn’t mean it’s without value. The basic principle that each person has the same rights as all the others is a good thing. The principle that nobody is above the law is a belief that this nation cleaved to when the bribery case was unfolding.
And if we accept those two precepts, then we have to accept that every single one of us has a responsibility to act to uphold the law.
Justice Chetwynd had the unenviable task of defending the accused against the inadequacy of their prosecution. He would never have been placed in that position had even one of the more than 50 men who saw what happened actually believed in the law enough to take a stand against brutality.
That is an indictment against our society.
Dan McGarry is editorial director of the Vanuatu Daily Post group.