25 Feb 2010

Princess Ashika captain released on bail

9:59 pm on 25 February 2010

The captain of Tonga's Princess Ashika ferry has been released on bail, two days after his arrest over the disaster that claimed 74 lives when the ferry sank.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry into the tragedy has heard that the 37-year-old vessel had large holes in its hull and was unseaworthy; freight carried on deck was poorly lashed.

The Princess Ashika rolled and sank at midnight on 5 August last year while travelling from the capital, Nuku'alofa, to an outlying island.

The captain, Maka Tuputupu, has been charged with five counts of knowingly sailing an unseaworthy vessel.

John Jonesse, the suspended chief executive of the ferry's operator, the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, was charged last week with forgery over documentation used in the purchase of the vessel.

Earlier this week, Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele admitted that no reports on the condition of the rusting ferry were tabled to Cabinet before it was bought last year.

Nor were any specific issues about the ferry raised in Cabinet, he said; he had relied on other people to complete due diligence.

Emails put before the inquiry show that Cabinet approved the purchase of the ship subject to a report of seaworthiness.

But that was not done. The inquiry was told a survey of the ship would have cost $90,000.

Paul Karalus, who resigned as Transport Minister a week after the sinking, has told the inquiry it was the responsibility of his officials to stop the ferry sailing if it was unseaworthy.

Meanwhile, Tonga's acting police commissioner, Taniela Faletau says criminal investigations involving negligence have begun into the sinking.

Mr Faletau says the police investigation is separate from the Royal Commission of Inquiry and will not use material from it.