19 Mar 2018

Vanuatu's deputy PM given 2 year suspended sentence

11:15 am on 19 March 2018

Vanuatu's deputy prime minister, Joe Natuman, says he won't be stepping aside immediately after being given a two-year suspended sentence.

Mr Natuman was sentenced in the Supreme Court on Friday, after last month pleading guilty to a charge of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Vanuatu Deputy Prime Minister, Joe Natuman.

Vanuatu Deputy Prime Minister, Joe Natuman. Photo: OFC via Phototek

He was sentenced alongside Aru Maralau, a former police commissioner, who was guilty of a charge of complicity to interfere with the court process and handed the same sentence.

The charges stemmed from a bitter dispute that engulfed the police force in 2014. Mr Natuman, as then-prime minister, ordered Mr Maralau, the then-commissioner, to stop a police team from investigating other high-ranking officers accused of mutiny.

In an interview soon after sentencing on Friday, Mr Natuman said he accepted that that was wrong, and apologised to the people.

"As prime minister at the time I was under a lot of pressure and I made a mistake," he said. "I accepted that, and I apologised to the court for that. We are only human beings, we are not gods. The people will eventually decide."

The two-year suspended sentence means Mr Natuman narrowly avoids automatically losing his seat. With this, he added that he had no immediate plans to resign unless asked to.

He said he was keen to continue serving, but will speak with the prime minister, Charlot Salwai, and his own Tanna electorate before making a decision about his political future.

"I'm committed to see this government through to complete the four year term because, as you know, Vanuatu has seen a lot of political instability and I want to maintain that commitment I made to the prime minister," he said.

"It will be up to the prime minister, myself and my electorate. The final decision in a democratic process belongs to the people."

Still, Mr Natuman's sentencing is a heavy blow for the Salwai-led government, which had been cruising along as one of the more stable administrations in the country's nearly 40-year history since independence.

The government swept to power in early 2016 after a crisis saw half the previous government jailed for corruption and the parliament dissolved.

Since then, Mr Salwai's coalition has held firm for a stretch of two years, becoming the longest-serving since the 2004-2008 government of Ham Lini, but still far off the 11 years of Walter Lini from 1980-1991.

But it has faced two attempted motions of no confidence, with the opposition looking to capitalise on Mr Natuman's trial in the previous attempts, and almost certain to again.