By: Samisoni Pareti
Tuvalu’s Chief Justice has warned of heavy penalties and jail time for any new attempt by landowners to seize the country’s only airport in the capital, Funafuti.
Justice Charles Sweeney has further ordered the country’s police force to make arrests in the case of any defiance of the court order, and immediately clear the runway of any obstructions that may hinder the operation of the airport.
“The court today makes orders intended to prevent any repetition of air traffic obstruction until the case can be finally determined,” wrote CJ Sweeney in his ruling. “Anyone considering breaching these orders should not underestimate the gravity of their intentions or the likely response of the court.”
The High Court ruling was handed down on 17 July, following applications from Tuvalu’s Lands Department as first applicant and the Attorney General as second applicant.
Landowners of the land where the airport sits have organised themselves as the Funafuti Native Land Trust Board, which was named as the respondent in the case.
It follows their decision on Friday 28 June to take control of the airport, saying that the lease by the government on the land has expired. They also moved heavy machines onto the runway to render it unusable.
Fiji Airways, the only commercial airline that operates to Funafuti from Fiji had to cancel its scheduled flight to Funafuti on Saturday 29 June as a result of the action.
Such actions Chief Justice Sweeney said were not only “unlawful interference on the part of the Funafuti landowners, but constituted a “significant sovereign risk.”
“These flights are an essential national lifeline for Tuvalu, which lies a three days sea voyage 1070 kms north of Suva. The deliberate obstruction of air traffic attacks the wellbeing of all Tuvalu’s citizens, attacks the ability of the government and the civil service to perform their duties as custodians of the public interest and attacks the economy of Tuvalu.
“It also attacks the amenity of life of its citizens. It sends a message to airlines that flights to Tuvalu are attended by commercial and possibly safety risks which might well render those flights uncommercial.”
The Tuvalu Judge ordered that his 7-point orders be placed on the public noticeboard in the capital, as well as copies made available to the World Bank and to Islands Business magazine.