4 Apr 2011

Tonga ferry disaster trio begin jail terms

10:40 pm on 4 April 2011

Three of the four men convicted over the Tonga ferry disaster have begun serving jail terms.

Seventy-four people died when the inter-island ferry Princess Ashika sank in waters off the capital Nuku'alofa on 5 August 2009.

The trial began on 11 February this year and is the biggest in the Pacific nation's history to date. Justice Robert Shuster handed down the sentences on Monday.

New Zealander and former chief executive of the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, John Jonesse, was jailed five years for his role in the disaster.

On Friday, Jonesse, three other men and the company were convicted on 30 counts, including one each of manslaughter by negligence in relation to the death of Vaefetu'u Mahe, whose body was one of just two recovered.

Jonesse was convicted of manslaughter, sending an unseaworthy ship to sea on five occasions, forgery and knowingly using a falsified document.

Maka Tuputupu, who captained the Ashika, was convicted of manslaughter and taking an unseaworthy ship to sea five times. He was jailed for four years, but will serve six months.

First mate Semisi Pomale was convicted of manslaughter and was jailed for five years, but will serve 18 months.

A former director of Tonga's Ministry of Transport, Viliami Tu'ipulotu, was convicted of manslaughter and sending an unseaworthy ship to sea on five occasions. He was given a three-year suspended sentence.

The Shipping Corporation of Polynesia was ordered to pay $US1.07 million in fines.

A journalist at the Taimi o Tonga newspaper, Sia Adams, says Jonesse showed no remorse at the sentencing, but the skipper and first mate did apologise in court.

Ms Adams says Jonesse is considering appealing against the sentence and conviction.

Solicitor-General Aminiasi Kefu says the Crown is considering an appeal over the sentences, which he says appear to be inconsistent.

The maximum sentence in Tonga for someone convicted of manslaughter by negligence is 10 years.

Company to appeal

The lawyer for the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia says it cannot pay the fine and the judge was wrong to use a recent British case as the benchmark when deciding the penalty.

Vuna Faotufia says the company is about to be wound up and the only reason it is still in operation is the court case. It will appeal against the ruling.