24 Mar 2008

French Polynesian atoll sale probe changes focus

3:28 pm on 24 March 2008

Investigative judges in French Polynesia have changed the focus of a probe into the 2002 sale of Anuanuraro atoll which was bought by the government.

They questioned four current and former Tahoeraa Huiraatira politicians, including President Gaston Flosse, for four hours in a bid to clarify the details of the land deal.

The probe is now focussed on it being an alleged swindle and not a case of abuse of public funds.

Central is the allegation that the atoll was bought by the territorial government from the leading pearl producer for five times its value.

A former lands minister, Gastion Tong Sang, has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the land deal and his lawyer, who flew in from Paris for the hearing, says this case will die a slow death.

Mr Flosse has said that it was the then finance minister, Georges Puchon, who approved the purchase.

The sale is being investigated after a complaint in 2004 which said the purchase price was five times higher than a valuation made a week earlier.