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The strange case of Bill Johnson, a study in neo-colonial hypocrisy

Categories: Asia-Pacific, Corruption, Hypocrisy, Indonesia, Law Enforcement, RAMSI, Solomon Islands

by: Bakchos
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Australian Vietnam Veteran, Bill Johnson, appeared in a Solomon Islands court on Tuesday 30th January, 2007 charged with conspiracy to murder. His alleged victim was to be none other than Manasseh Sogavare, the then Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands who at the time was involved in a diplomatic rift with Australia.

On Wednesday 31st January, 2007, The Australian published an extract from the police charge sheet that alleged Johnson, 60, told two senior Solomon Islands police officers he planned to murder Sogavare:

“… for a reward bounty payment of 50,000 Australian dollars sponsored by Australia.”

The Australian Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, told reporters that he knew little about the case other than what details had been revealed in media reports:

“Did we try and get anybody to assassinate the prime minister of the Solomon Islands? Of course not”

In a contemporaneous statement the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also denied that the Australian government had any involvement and urged the Solomon Islands’ judiciary to fairly examine the allegations:

“It is preposterous to suggest that the Australian government had any involvement in this alleged assassination attempt.

We would expect that these allegations would be rigorously and fairly examined, that innuendo would be dismissed and the facts would be established”.

Johnson was charged by the Solomon’s police with conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit a felony.

It was alleged that Johnson and four other men also involved in the conspiracy but unnamed in court, met in a hotel in Honiara between 18th and 23rd January, 2007 to plan the crime.

The charges against Johnson were eventually dropped in late February, 2007 amid allegations of corruption and witnesses tampering by the Australian Federal Police. Johnson returned to Brisbane after the charges against him were dropped, but was prohibited from returning to the Solomon’s.

Jeffery Deve, Solomon’s Immigration Director at the time, told the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation that Johnson had not been deported; rather his return to Australia had been facilitated as he did not have a valid residential permit.

On Johnson’s return to Australia an Australian Foreign Affairs Department spokeswoman said that the case was a matter for the Solomon’s government, adding that Johnson was planning to leave anyway:

“We have no information about the circumstances under which he [Johnson] left the country.”

In applying for the charges against Johnson to be dropped the Director of Public Prosecutions Ronald Bei Talasasa said police witnesses changed their stories and the case could not be substantiated.

The then Solomon’s Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare questioned the investigative process that led to the withdrawing of charges against Johnson.

Sogavare contested that initial statements given to police voluntarily were altered significantly after Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) investigators became involved in the case.

He further argued that RAMSI investigators had made a deliberate attempt to discredit the original police statements made to the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff failing to properly investigate what were serious charges.

“These police officers came to us because of their concerns. We didn’t go to them. And we acted accordingly which resulted in the charges being made.”

However, Prime Minister Sogavare did not accept reports that the Australian government was complicit in the alleged assassination attempt, saying that the alleged bounty was a “fanciful misrepresentation”.

Background to the Johnson drama

In 2003 Australia intervened in the Solomon Islands after the former government ‘invited’ Australia to lead an international force of military and police personnel to bring the nation back from the brink of economic and civil collapse.

By 2006 the situation had soured and Australia threatened to cut aid to the Solomon’s which amounted to AUD 223 million for the fiscal year ending June 2007, unless the Sogavare government tackled corruption and improved its performance.

Adding to this quagmire was the neo-colonial ‘dictate’ issued by Canberra to Honiara that it extradite to Australia it’s Attorney General Julian Moti QC, an Australian citizen, wanted in Australia on child sex tourism charges. Honiara countered by barring the country’s chief of police, Shane Castles, another Australian from returning after a vacation to Australia, by declaring him an “undesirable immigrant.”

Issues of concern

The Australian diplomatic mission in Honiara referring to the Johnson matter commented that:

“We expect the man’s case to be handled according to due legal processes and that his safety and security be respected.”

Due legal process and a fair and unbiased trial are nothing less than one would expect in a country that prides itself on its adherence to the ‘rule of law’. However, the Australian diplomatic mission’s comments begin to reek of hypocrisy when we consider what the Prime Minister Sogavare said at the time the charges against Johnson were dropped:

“The initial statements voluntarily made by police were dramatically altered after Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) investigators became involved in the case.”

RAMSI consists primarily of Australian Federal Police officers with some Australian Defence Force personnel and corrective services officers assisting. The Sogavare allegations against the Australian Federal Police are serious, especially given, that he was the democratically elected Prime Minister of a sovereign state at the time they were made.

What is even more concerning; is that the Sogavare allegations concerning the Australian Federal Police, as they do, are not isolated incidents. In a recorded interview with journalist Susan Merrell shortly before he died, Aripaea Salmon, the father of the girl at the center Julian Moti sex scandal, said that he repeatedly asked for a lawyer, preferably bi-lingual (Salmon’s first language is French), when the Australian Federal Police first contacted his family. Salmon went on to say that the Australian Federal Police refused his request to be legally represented. In addition, he stated that the family had been coached as to what to say in their statements for the prosecution by the Australian Federal Police.

Two years later, in 2009, in a different part of the Pacific, West Papua to be exact, we have the same Australian Federal Police force interfering or at least apparently interfering with evidence. This time it appears evidence that could potentially link the Indonesian military to the murder of Australian Drew Grant, was removed from his body while in the custody of Australian Embassy staff, including Australian Federal Police officers.

Hypocrisy and neo-colonialism

The three ‘crimes’ detailed above, allegedly committed by the Australian Federal Police on foreign soil served no other purpose than to advance Australia’s selfish commercial and political interests in the Pacific. It appears that, on the part of Australia’s Pacific enforcers, the Australian Federal Police, Australia’s selfish interests take precedent over any concepts of justice and integrity.

“Although it may be argued that there is a basic fund of goodwill towards this country [Australia] in many of the islands, we have to recognise that particularly in Fiji, persistent criticisms arise from a combination of factors:

Australia’s restrictive immigration policy (in the face of island over-population and limited employment opportunities, especially for educated islanders)…Australia’s heavily and in most cases increasingly favourable balance of trade with the region; the association of individual Australians with racially discriminatory practices in the islands themselves. In all, there is a tendency to feel that Australia’s attitudes to the islands are dominated by selfish concentration on its own interests in the region, principally commercial profit, and that Australia takes too little account of the wider interests in the welfare and progress of the Pacific community.

While the South Pacific remained a collection of colonial dependencies, Australia’s unforthcoming image may not have mattered a great deal in real terms. Relations with the island authorities could be conducted over the heads of islanders. With the constitutional developments of recent years, the situation has changed. The maintenance of our own place in the South Pacific now depends increasingly on the goodwill of island governments and their recognition that we are sincere in seeking to co-operate on the basis of respect and equality.”

(“Political Consultation in the South Pacific”, Submission No.47, Decision No.94, Cabinet Minute, Canberra, 20 April 1971, released by the National Archives of Australia, January 2002 (http://www.naa.gov.au/))

These words are quoted from a 1971 Australian Cabinet paper, released to the public after 30 years. The paper was presented to the Cabinet after the formation of the South Pacific Forum in 1971, as the Australian government attempted to come to terms with a newly assertive political leadership in Pacific island countries. The issues, however, are just as relevant today in 2011 as we discuss the human rights implications of Australian policies in the region. Many Pacific islanders would agree that “Australia’s attitudes to the islands are dominated by selfish concentration on its own interests in the region, principally commercial profit, and that Australia takes too little account of the wider interests in the welfare and progress of the Pacific community.”

What Australia is doing in the Pacific mirrors the process of colonization and Aboriginal dispossession that has taken place on the Australian mainland and Tasmania since that process began in the late Eighteenth Century.

The only people to have benefited from this process of colonial dispossession have been Australian’s of non-Aboriginal extraction. As in all exploitive processors, the original and rightful owners of a resource are forcibly separated from their property through a combination of brute force, subtle manipulation and the imposition of foreign laws that are applied favourably to the aggressors and harshly to the indigenous victims.

What the Australian government has demonstrated in the Johnson, Moti and Grant cases is a total disregard for the ‘rule of law’ and a neo-colonial indifference to the sovereignty of ‘lesser’ states which are the pretentious hallmark of an aggressive and presumptuous third rate, would be, colonial power.

Unless the peoples of the Pacific stand up with one voice and tell Australia that its racism and selfish commercial exploitation of the region’s resources are unacceptable, the Pacific can look forward to a future of dispossession and poverty, similar to that currently being enjoyed by Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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