17 Dec 2012

Possible indictments 15 years after the disappearance of French Polynesian journalist

12:20 pm on 17 December 2012

It is 15 years since the French Polynesian journalist, Jean-Pascal Couraud, vanished in what now increasingly appears to be a politically motivated assassination.

In 2004, a claim made in the territorial assembly that he was killed hit Tahiti like a bomb and prompted his family to lodge a murder complaint with the police.

The investigation into one of the territory's most intriguing cases is now in its ninth year and there is speculation that indictments are only weeks away.

Walter Zweifel has the story:

Jean-Pascal Couraud was the former editor of the Nouvelles of Tahiti and an advisor to an opposition politician when he disappeared without a trace on December the 15th 1997.

Now his brother, Philippe, says a picture has emerged that clearly points to a killing.

"The more and more information we have coming from the judge makes absolutely certain that my brother has been assassinated, and everybody who can read the files has the same conclusion."

For years, his family was led to believe that he may have committed suicide but amid the political upheaval in 2004, a former spy of the now disbanded intelligence service of the then President, Gaston Flosse, claimed that the journalist had been drowned.

Vetea Guilloux, who was immediately arrested and jailed for slander, has upheld his version and told French television that his colleagues attached breeze blocks on the journalist's limb and kept dunking him.

The assumption is that he died in the process of being maltreated and that his body was then dumped in the depths between Tahiti and Moorea - as it was immediately claimed in the assembly by one of its members, Hiro Tefaarere.

The revelations stunned the public at the time and amid the political commotion Gaston Flosse swore in the territorial assembly that he had never ordered anybody's death.

The publisher of the Tahiti Pacifique monthly, Alex du Prel, says his declaration was surprising.

He said he never gave orders for anybody to kill and everybody believed him. But he didn't say nobody ever was killed.

The family lodged a murder complaint against unknown persons.

The case had an echo in France where national televison networks dispatched reporters to Tahiti for a documentary.

Gaston Flosse claimed after its broadcast that he had been defamed by France 3 and took court action against its CEO and a reporter.

The criminal court in Paris, however, dismissed his complaint.

Still in court - eight years on - is Vetea Guilloux's appeal of his slander conviction which, according to Alex du Prel, defies legal norms.

He was condemned to twice what the law allowed. The whole thing has been a real farce of French justice.

Jean-Pascal Couraud's mother told TV reporters at the time about her disappointment with the judicial machinery, suggesting there has been obstruction.

Alex du Prel says this has been confirmed.

We had state attorneys who admitted themselves that they had been appointed to protect Mr Flosse, and they did that job quite well actually.

As for a possible motive for a killing, Philippe Couraud says he believes his brother had documents that could have damaged Mr Flosse and his associates in Paris.

We discovered a paper of twelve to thirteen pages which was in possession of my brother, and in fact it was because he had this information that he was killed.

Alex du Prel says the papers pointed to money being channelled via Japan, possibly to an account held by Jacques Chirac.

At the time, they were looking into financing over in Tahiti and they saw that part of the money had gone to Japan. So the local representative to the state attorney had asked Paris for help to define where the money would have gone in Japan and he got a message back saying stop, do not enquire in that direction, you're getting close to the top of the state. That, I published at the time and nobody ever denied it.

French media reports however say Japanese authorities have found no record of any bank account alleged to have been held by Mr Chirac.

This came despite a French secret service report in 1996 mentioning the account.

Since Vetea Guilloux made his claim of foul play, the intelligence unit has been disbanded.

Although its activities were illegal, they were condoned by France, which had supplied an officer to lead it.

A court has since fined Mr Flosse for obstructing a probe into the defunct agency, whose records have all disappeared or been wiped.

Philippe Couraud says in recent times the investigation has been accelerated.

Now the judge is working and the policemen are doing their job correctly. The problem we had was before between 2004 and 2007, three years, and it was very difficult. At this time, I was sure that the Justice did not want to help us. I mean, not Justice but the men who were there. [Question: Is it a fair conclusion to suggest that it had to do with a change of government, with Sarkozy coming to power?] Yes, sure. It was clear at the time when Chirac was President, this affair caused a lot of trouble for them. So that's why at this time, everything was organised to stop the enquiries.

Philippe Couraud says evidence is being lined up that could lead to indictments quite soon.

There are grave matching clues making it likely that he might have been involved in committing a transgression or something like this. And at this time, we think that two or three people could be indicted in maybe one or two months.

Philippe Couraud says while a possible indictment may be a first step, it would take quite a bit more effort for a trial of those who he believes killed his brother.