21 Mar 2011

Tonga ferry trial nears end

9:12 pm on 21 March 2011

Final submissions are being heard in the trial of four men accused of manslaughter following the sinking of the Tonga inter-island ferry MV Princess Ashika.

Seventy-four people died after the ferry sank in Tongan waters on 5 August 2009.

The Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, its former director, New Zealander John Jonesse, Tonga's acting director of marine and the Ashika's skipper and first mate are charged with manslaughter.

The defendants collectively face 30 counts, including one charge each of manslaughter by negligence in relation to the death of Vaefetu'u Mahe, whose body was one of just two recovered after the sinking.

Defence lawyers told the court on Monday they will not be calling any witnesses, nor would the four accused be giving evidence.

Justice Robert Shuster asked each defendant and representing counsel whether they understood their rights.

The defendants replied they understood and elected to remain silent, Radio New Zealand International reports.

The trial in Tonga's capital, Nukualofa, has been in session for over three weeks. The Crown closed its case last week.

The prosecution's last witness and surveyor, Lisiate Vuni Latu, told the court last week he had told the then-transport minister Paul Karalus that the Ashika was not seaworthy.

The seven assessors are expected to begin their deliberations later this week.