20 May 2024

Wife of a former Palau president sues Surangel Whipps Jr, seeking US$150,000 in damages

12:51 pm on 20 May 2024
Surangel Whipps Jr in Rarotonga. 7 November 2023.

Surangel Whipps Jr in Rarotonga. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Lydia Lewis

Palau's President Surangel Whipps Jr has been sued in his personal and official capacity before a US Federal Court in Texas for banning an American woman from entering Palau.

Christa Toribiong, formerly Christa Nafstad, was listed by the Palau government as an undesirable alien in 2022.

Toribiong - who married former Palau president Johnson Toribiong in 2023 - argues she was unlawfully put on the "blacklist" under the rules of the Compact of Free Association (COFA).

The COFA is an agreement the United States has with Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. It gives the US military access to the three nations, in return the Freely Associated States are given financial assistance and the right for citizens to work in the US.

However, Toribiong in her complaint filed on 1 May argues under the compact she can only be added to the blacklist on reasonable statutory grounds - which she claims she has not been given.

Christa Nafstad Toribiong, formerly Christa Nafstad with her husband former Palau president Johnson Toribiong.

Christa Nafstad Toribiong, formerly Christa Nafstad with her husband former Palau president Johnson Toribiong. Photo: Supplied

Toribiong also claims she has been denied due process which she has a right to.

She cites Article IV, Section 142(a) of COFA which allows denial of entry or declaring a US citizen "as undesirable alien but must be pursuant to reasonable statutory ground".

President Whipps told RNZ Pacific he believes Toribiong's actions "comes down to harassment" and there was no logic in filing a lawsuit in Texas.

"If a country cannot secure its own borders how can you be a country? That's really what it comes down to and I think that's the same rule that the United States has on keeping Palauan citizens out," Whipps said.

"Now, if we're one country, if Palau and the United States are one country, then of course, you can go back and forth."

RNZ Pacific's correspondent, Ongerung Kambes Kesolei, said Toribiong was listed undesirable alien along with a host of other names mainly from China and Bangladesh.

However, these people are put on the list with no reason given to the public, he said.

Toribiong believes the true reason she was put on the blacklist was because she was dating former President Johnson Toribiong.

"I'm a resident of Palau, I have a Palauan social security card, I have a Palauan driver's license, I have personal property, I have a vehicle in Palau," she said.

Toribiong is seeking no less than US$150,000 plus punitive damages, costs of suit, and attorney's fees and for her name to be removed from the blacklist.

'Married and been apart'

In 2023, Toribiong and former President Johnson filed a similar lawsuit which is pending before the Palau Supreme Court.

"We're husband and wife, we love each other, we are human beings, we're suffering here, we've been married for a year and we've been apart this whole time."

The complaint said Whipps actions have caused "Christa immense emotional trauma and distress, resulting in a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder".

President Whipps said the fact she is married to former President Johnson had nothing to do with why she is on the blacklist.

"She got on the list before she was married to him, so these are two separate issues, she probably wanted to marry him so she could get off the list," he said.

Whipps said nothing is stopping the couple living in the US together. He has 21 days from the date of receipt of the complaint to file an answer

RNZ Pacific correspondent Kesolei said it may be the first lawsuit filed in the US federal court system against a head of state in Palau.

He said it remains to be seen if President Whipps will be able to dismiss the lawsuit based on sovereign immunity.