1 Apr 2010

Tongan royal commission reports on ferry sinking

6:11 am on 1 April 2010

A Royal Commission of Inquiry in Tonga has released a report on the sinking of the ferry Princess Ashika in which 74 people died last year.

The rust-riddled ferry sank just hours after leaving Tonga's capital Nuku'alofa in August last year.

The commission was established to investigate the disaster and find evidence pointing to criminal activity or civil responsibility.

Its findings were released to the King of Tonga and government today, but some media have managed to obtain the report.

Radio New Zealand International correspondent in Nuku'alofa, Mateni Tapueluelu, says while the two key terms of reference were to identify criminal and or civil liability in relation to the sinking of the Princess Ashika, the commissioners have been careful not to incriminate anybody.

But he says the report does say the Tongan government had systemically failed in all areas relating to the buying of the ferry, singling out the Cabinet, the Prime Minister - who chairs the Cabinet - as well as a former government minister who "knowingly made false statements to a number of authorities" which resulted in the purchase of a "rust bucket".

The commissioners mention the former managing director of the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, John Jonesse, who is one of several people charged with manslaughter.

The report says Mr Jonesse did not do his homework in gathering enough information for the government to decide whether or not to buy the vessel.

The prime minister's spokesperson, Feleti Sevele, says the Cabinet is to hold a special meeting to discuss the commission's report.

Commission told of discord

During nearly six months of investigation, the commission heard repeatedly that the purchase of the ship was marked by lack of process and due diligence, and the use of forged documents.

The inquiry was also told that many government departments were dysfunctional and there was discord between board members of the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia.

Former corporation head John Jonesse, the ferry's captain and its first mate have all been charged in relation to the sinking of the rust-riddled ferry.

A charge of manslaughter has also been brought against the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia.

Relatives who lost family members when the ferry sank hope the report will expose those responsible.

Sonia Puleheloto, whose niece Sisilia Puleheloto died, says the family will not rest until it knows who is responsible, and other grieving families feel the same.