Logistical nightmare looms over Pitcairn sex abuse trial

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 July, 2004, 12:00am

A New Zealand court has ordered a trial which will be one of the hardest in the world to organise.

The court last week ruled that seven men from the tiny British dependency of Pitcairn Island, who are accused of having sex with under-age girls, should face trial on the island itself.

British authorities had pushed hard for the trial to be held in New Zealand, in front of a special court with Pitcairn jurisdiction.

But in an unexpected decision, the Pitcairn Supreme Court, sitting in Auckland, ruled that it would be in the best interests of the alleged victims and the accused for the trial to be held on Pitcairn.

The seven men deny having sex with girls as young as three in alleged offences which date as far back as 1989.

The court's decision throws up a logistical nightmare for British authorities, who now have just over 10 weeks to prepare for the two-month trial, scheduled to start on September 23.

Pitcairn lies roughly half-way between New Zealand and Chile, has no airport and is accessible only by sea.

The Pitcairners are descendants of the Bounty mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian, who settled on the island in 1790 after their revolt against Captain William Bligh.

Container line P&O has ceased its regular stops at the island. The three judges, numerous court officials, technicians and police officers now face flying from Auckland or Wellington to Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia.

From there they will connect with a once-a-week flight to the outlying island of Mangareva, 2,000km east, where they will be met by a small boat specially chartered by the British government.

The vessel will complete the last leg of the journey, taking about 48 hours to ferry the group of 30 officials to Pitcairn, a further 550km to the east.

'It's very uncomfortable and bobs around a fair bit,' said a spokesman for the British High Commission in Wellington, which administers Pitcairn. 'At a pinch it will take a dozen passengers at a time, but they will certainly get to know each other very well.'

The arrival of the party, along with about 10 international journalists, will almost double the island's population of 47.

The problems do not end there. With heavy swells and no harbour, getting safely from the boat to dry land will be a challenge.

Last year it proved almost impossible to land Pitcairn's deputy governor, Matthew Forbes, who is also first secretary at the British High Commission.

'He had to scramble onto the rocks from a Zodiac inflatable boat and it cut his shins to shreds,' the spokesman said.

'Then he climbed aboard an all-terrain vehicle but it promptly flipped over and he landed face down in the mud.'

Having braved such indignities, the officials will find that the 43 sq km island has no hotels or guest houses.

The more senior members of the group will probably stay in the tiny government lodge.

The rest will have to make do with mattresses on the floor of the island's school house or community hall.