Kanaky New Caledonia unrest: Shock over pro-independence leader charges, transfer to France

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CCAT leader Christian Téin, organiser of a series of marches and protests, mainly peaceful
CCAT leader Christian Téin, organiser of a series of marches and protests, mainly peaceful . . . transferred to prison in Mulhouse, north-eastern France. Image: NZ La 1ère TV screenshot APR

By Patrick Decloitre, RNZ Pacific correspondent French Pacific desk

A group of pro-independence leaders charged with allegedly organising protests that turned into violent unrest in New Caledonia last month have been indicted and transferred to mainland France where they will be held in custody pending trial.

Christian Téin and 10 others were arrested by French security forces during a dawn operation in Nouméa last Wednesday.

Since then, they have been held for a preliminary period not exceeding 96 hours.

‘If this was about making new martyrs of the pro-independence cause, then there would not have been a better way to do it.’

— A defence lawyer

The indicted group members are suspected of “giving orders” within a “Field Action Coordinating Cell” (CCAT) that was set up last year by Union Calédonienne (UC), the largest and one of the more radical parties forming the pro-independence FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front) unbrella group.

On behalf of CCAT, Téin organised a series of marches and protests, mainly peaceful, in New Caledonia, to oppose plans by the French government to change eligibility rules for local elections, which the pro-independence movement said would further marginalise indigenous Kanak voters.

Late on Saturday, New Caledonia’s Public Prosecutor Yves Dupas told local media the indictment followed a decision made by one of the two “liberties and detention” judges dedicated to the case on the same day.

Heavy security setup around Nouméa’s tribunal on Saturday 22 June 2024
A heavy security cordon around Nouméa’s courthouse last Satuday. Image: NC la 1ère TV/RNZ

The judge had ruled that Christian Téin should be temporarily transferred to a jail in Mulhouse (northeastern France), Téin’s lawyer Pierre Ortet told media.

Téin was seen entering the investigating judge’s chambers on Saturday afternoon, local time, and leaving the office about half an hour later after he had been told of his indictment.

A demonstration in Paris not far from the Justice Ministry calling for the release of the Kanak political prisoners
A demonstration in Paris not far from the Justice Ministry calling for the release of the Kanak political prisoners. Image: NC la 1ère TV screenshot APR

Other suspects include Brenda Wanabo-Ipeze, described as the CCAT’s communications officer, who is to be transferred to another French jail in Dijon (southeast France).

Frédérique Muliava, described as chief-of-staff of New Caledonia’s Congress President Roch Wamytan (also a major figure of the UC party), is to be sent to another jail in Riom (near Clermont-Ferrand, Central France).

The “presumed order-givers of the acts committed starting from 12 May 2024” are facing a long list of charges, including incitement, conspiracy, and complicity to instigate murders on officers entrusted with public authority.

The transfer was decided to “ensure investigations can continue in a serene way and away from any pressure”, Dupas said.

‘Shock’, ‘surprise’, ‘stupor’ reactions
Thomas Gruet, Wanabo-Ipeze’s lawyer, commented with shock about the judge’s decision: “My client would never have imagined ending up here. She is extremely shocked because, in her view, this is just about activism.”

He said his client had “spent the whole of her first night (of indictment) handcuffed”.

Gruet said he was “extremely shocked and astounded” by this decision.

“I believe all the mistakes regarding the management of this crisis have now been made by the judiciary, which has responded politically. My client is an activist who has never called for violence. This will be a long trial, but we will demonstrate that she has never committed the charges she faces.”

About midnight local time, Gruet was seen bringing his client a large pink suitcase containing a few personal effects which he had collected from her house.

The transferred suspects are believed to have boarded a special flight in the early hours of Sunday.

Téin’s lawyer, Pierre Ortet, said “we are surprised and in a stupor”.

“We have already appealed (the ruling). Mr Téin intends to defend himself against the charges. It will be a long and complicated case.”

Another defence lawyer, Stéphane Bonomo, commented: “If this was about making new martyrs of the pro-independence cause, then there would not have been a better way to do it.”

On the French national political level and in the context of electoral campaigning ahead of the snap general election, to be held on 30 June and 7 July, far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said the decision to transfer Téin was “an alienation of his rights and a gross and dramatic political mistake”.

Late hearings Nouméa’s tribunal on Saturday 22 June 2024
Late hearings at the Nouméa court last Saturday . . . accused pro-independence leaders being transferred to prisons in France to await trial. Image: NC la 1ère TV/RNZ

Other indicted persons
Among other persons who were indicted at the weekend are Guillaume Vama and Joël Tjibaou, the son of charismatic pro-independence FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who signed the Matignon Accord peace agreement in 1988 and was assassinated one year later by a hardline member of the pro-independence movement.

Tjibaou and several others have asked for a delay to prepare their defence and they will be heard tomorrow.

Pending that hearing, they will not be transferred to mainland France and will be kept in custody in Nouméa, Tjibaou’s lawyer Claire Ghiani said.

Why CCAT leaders are targeted
The indicted group members are suspected of giving the orders within the CCAT.

The constitutional amendment that would allow voters residing in New Caledonia for a minimum period of 10 years to take part in New Caledonia’s provincial elections, has been passed by both of France’s houses of Parliament (the Senate, on April 2 and the French National Assembly, on May 14).

But the text, which still requires a final vote from the French Congress (a joint sitting of both Houses), has now been “suspended” by President Macron, mainly due to his calling of the snap general election on June 30 and July 7.

Violent riots involving the burning, and looting of more than 600 businesses and 200 residential homes, erupted mainly in the capital Nouméa starting from May 13.

Nine people, including two French gendarmes, have died as a result of the violent clashes.

More than 7000 people are already believed to have lost their jobs for a total financial damage estimate now well over 1 billion euros (NZ$1.8 billion) as a result of the unrest.

CCAT has consistently denied responsibility for the grave ongoing and violent civil unrest and Téin was featured on public television “calling for calm”.

Fresh clashes in Nouméa and outer islands
Meanwhile, there has been a new upsurge of violence and clashes in Nouméa and its surroundings, including the townships of Dumbéa (where about 30 rioters attempted to attack the local police station) and the neighbourhoods of Vallée-du-Tir, Magenta and Tuband, reports NC la 1ère TV.

On the outer island of Lifou (Loyalty Islands group, northeast of the main island), the airstrip was damaged and as a result, all Air Calédonie flights were cancelled.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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