The separation of powers crisis in Kiribati escalated on Friday, with the Pacific country’s attorney general, Tetiro Semilota Moaniba, appointed acting chief justice.
Semilota was sworn in on Friday afternoon at a closed ceremony in the capital, Tarawa. Under the Kiribati constitution, the chief justice is appointed by the president, Taneti Maamau, acting on the advice of his cabinet. It was not immediately clear whether Semilota had first resigned her position as attorney general.
Guardian Australia understands that Semilota is set to be formally welcomed to the high court at a special sitting on Wednesday. She is the first i-Kiribati citizen, and the first woman, to hold the position in Kiribati, where the use of foreign judges is common.
The Kiribati government has been at war with its judiciary for the past year. The crisis began in 2021 when the government blocked high court judge and Australian citizen David Lambourne from returning to the country – a move subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the chief justice, New Zealand judge William Hastings.
The government then suspended both Lambourne and Hastings, before briefly detaining and attempting to deport Lambourne – in defiance of orders from Kiribati’s court of appeal.
The government then suspended all three judges of the court of appeal, after they had condemned the government’s actions.
The appointment of the government’s chief law officer as acting chief justice raises major questions about the separation of powers in Kiribati. The Kiribati constitution mandates “an independent and impartial” court system.
The latest development in the ongoing crisis comes as an intervention by the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego García-Sayán, recently became public.
In communication to the Kiribati government in August, García-Sayán wrote that he was “deeply concerned” with the suspensions of Lambourne and Hastings and the consequence that “Kiribati does not currently have a functioning high court.”
Semilota’s appointment as acting chief justice will do little to address the mounting backlog in cases caused by the constitutional crisis. She will have a conflict of interest in all criminal cases, given her involvement in signing indictments as attorney general, and most pending civil cases are against her government.
Guardian Australia contacted the Attorney General, her office and a spokesperson for the president, but did not receive a response by the time of publication. However, a post to the president’s Facebook page on Saturday afternoon confirmed the appointment.
The post indicated that the president had issued a statement in which he “reaffirmed the government’s commitment to up-hold the Rule of Law and respect to the powers of the Judiciary. He concluded stating that government remained ready to work together with Judiciary for the betterment of Kiribati and the people.”
Kiribati has been in the geopolitical spotlight in recent years since shifting its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, visited earlier this year and China’s influence is believed to have contributed to Kiribati’s withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum.
Australia and New Zealand, Kiribati’s two primary development partners, have remained quiet during the constitutional crisis.
“The broader issues between the government of Kiribati and its judiciary are matters for the government of Kiribati to resolve, consistent with its constitutional and legal processes,” a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in August when Lambourne was briefly detained.