23 Feb 2010

Tongan PM's emails raise new questions in Ashika ferry sinking inquiry

10:56 pm on 23 February 2010

Emails of Tonga's Prime Minister disclosed in tonight's hearing of the commission of inquiry into the Princess Ashika ferry disaster have raised new questions about cabinet's actions over the purchase of the doomed ship.

Prime Minister Feleti Sevele has testified for a second day at the inquiry into last August's sinking, which claimed 74 lives.

The Commission has heard that last April, Tonga's cabinet approved of the purchase of the Ashika subject to a due diligence report on the ship's seaworthiness.

No report was forthcoming and an email conversation from May which the Commission has obtained reveals Dr Sevele asking his Minister of Transport about seaworthiness certification.

Our correspondent Mateni Tapueluelu says the Prime Minister claims he didn't finalise the decision on the purchase but left it up to the Minister of Finance.

"All the papers that are now being exposed about the Ashika, then the certificates, he's probably saying that he's now seen it for the first time in the Commission. He's not definite in his answers, he's saying he may have seen it before or it could be his first time. He speaks very low volume. He had to be asked by the counsel to speak up numerous times."

Mateni Tapueluelu says at one point in the hearing Dr Sevele refused to answer questions concerning his feelings about the sinking in relation to media comments he made immediately after the maritime tragedy.