By Kalafi Moala

 

Nuku’alofa, Tonga – Two of Tonga’s most prominent national leaders have each filed defamation legal action against the Chairman of the Tonga Sports Council, ‘Ikani Taliai.  Lord Tupou and Lord Sevele, both appointed to Life Peer by the Crown are highly respected leaders each taking legal action against the defendant at the Magistrate Court in Nuku’alofa over false allegations of attempting to misuse $400 million in sports funding.

Lord Sevele and Lord Tupou had both been President and VP of TASANOC at various times dating back to 1975 when Lord Sevele succeeded Patele Tavite in 1975. Lord Tupou followed in 1978 when Lord Sevele left for New Caledonia to work for SPC. They have now given almost 50 years of their life to sports administration in their faithful voluntary service to King and Country.

They have each asked for damages claiming they have been seriously defamed by ‘Ikani Taliai in an article he authored and posted on Facebook. Other media platforms of distribution have not been determined but the said article by the defendant has been widely circulated, at least on social media, and has been the subject of public conversations.

Both Lord Tupou and Lord Sevele claim the defendant intentionally defamed them and damaged their reputation by baseless accusations and inferences in the article that is utterly false and malicious in nature.

It is interesting that these two men with quite an impeccable public record in the various services they have provided for the country for many years, have been the target of an attempt to discredit them. And it had to do with vicious attack by a young administrator under the supervising eye of the late Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva.

‘Ikani Taliai, acted like a “hit-man” to begin the process of dismantling TASANOC (a non-Government Sports Organization but the Internationally Recognized Governing Sports Body) that has served Tonga for many years; and be replaced by a new Government owned and controlled sports council set up by the ‘Akilisi Pohiva administration.

This was made clear in a meeting in September 2015 in which the late Prime Minister told representatives of the sports federations that TASANOC must be dissolved and to be replaced by the Tonga Sports Council.

The article in contention aimed quite obviously to discredit the two Life Peers, in their long-time role as sports administrators. Lord Tupou was the President of TASANOC, and Lord Sevele was the Deputy at the time of the defamatory article by ‘Ikani.

They had built a credible organization, earning the endorsement of the Olympics Committee, and other international sports organizations.  Royal family endorsements were also evident in the participation of HRH Princess Salote Pilolevu Tuita. But the problem with TASANOC was they could not be controlled by Government. And Lord Sevele was perceived by the late Prime Minister as the person who stood between him and his desired control of the sports sphere in Tonga. Lord Tupou was also adamant in his insistence that TASANOC be independent of Government and/or political interference, and so he became a target of intimidation himself.

The pages of public information on both the Plaintiffs are just simply amazing, and overwhelming to even be covered in this story. However, there are important elements that briefly need reference to.

Lord Tupou of Kolofo’ou (79)

He was educated at Auckland University where he graduated with an LLB, and then went on to be a Postgraduate from Oxford University. He worked as a lawyer.

During his political career, he served as Attorney General, Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister. In 2008, he was elevated by King George Tupou V to the title of Life Peer, as Lord Tupou of Kolofo’ou. He was appointed Law Lord (Judge) in the newly formed Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. And on 3 December 2010, the King appointed him as interim Speaker of Parliament.

In October of 2014, Tupou was appointed as Judge in the Appeal Court of Tonga, making him the first Tongan in the panel.

In his role as a sports administrator, Lord Tupou was awarded the Olympic Order by the President of the Olympic Committee (IOC). He accused Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva of “dictatorial and blatant, political interference with sport,” and as President of TASANOC warned that if he continued to interfere and dissolves TASANOC, it may result in Tonga’s suspension from the Olympic Movement.

Lord Sevele of Vailahi (76)

Lord Sevele’s higher education was at the University of Canterbury, where he earned a BSc in Mathematics, and PhD in Economic Geography. His involvement in various endeavors that included farming, exporting and management at Commodities Board, and Vice President to the then President of TASANOC, HRH Princess Pilolevu in the construction of Teufaiva and ‘Atele Gymnasium, and in the running of the 1989 Mini-Games in Tonga. These were only a few of the varied engagement in corporate business and community activities, as well as government and church education.

He was elected as People’s Representative to Parliament in 1999, 2002, and 2005. And in March of that year, he was appointed by King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV as Minister of Labour, Commerce and Industries, one of the first two Ministers to have been appointed from the elected People’s Representatives to Parliament. He was appointed to Acting Prime Minister in February 2006, and as the 13th Prime Minister of Tonga on 30 March 2006. He is the first Tongan commoner to be appointed as Prime Minister.

In recognition of his dedicated service, King George Tupou V on 30 December 2010 granted him Life Peerage, and the title of Lord Sevele of Vailahi, enjoying the privileges and benefits of a noble of the realm. He was also honored by His Alma Mater, the University of Canterbury, in 2013 by conferring on him the Doctor of Letters (honoraris causa) for his services to democracy, education and sports.

These are the two men, who as Plaintiffs, are taking legal action against ‘Ikani Taliai for an article that they claim have defamed them. The point given in the Plaintiff’s claim is that they have suffered damage of character and reputation as the article accused them of intentional cheating and planning to misuse funding of $400 million.

‘Ikani Taliai – his article in question

‘Ikani, as head of the Tonga Sports Council, wrote this article in English and Tongan, and posted it on his FB page. There may be several reasons for the writing of the article, but there is no doubt, as judged from the content, it was written with the intention to discredit Lord Sevele and Lord Tupou, as well as the organization TASANOC, unless of-course he can prove otherwise.

One of the clearest and most important defenses in any defamation case is the “truth defence.” Are the accusations against Lord Sevele and Lord Tupou as specified in the article true or false?

The onus is on the defendant to prove beyond reasonable doubt that what he has accused the Plaintiffs of is true.

But the article if read at face value is an argument supporting the cancellation of the Pacific Games in May 2017 by the late Prime Minister and his Cabinet. Ikani agued throughout the article that this decision to cancel the 2019 Games by being hosted in Tonga, was in the nation’s interest, as it purportedly saves the country from an economic disaster.

The contract to host the 2019 Pacific Games was signed in October 2012 by the Tu’ivakano led Government, the Pacific Games Council (PGC), and the Tonga Pacific Games Association (TPGA) – TASANOC.

The late Prime Minister announced that hosting the Games would jeopardize the Tongan economy. Despite the expressed hope from different circles that the Games would bring benefits to the economy in having venues that can be used for future events, and the Games itself would revive the economy, Government was firm in its decision to cancel. This reasoning of the late PM was contrary to the publicly aired views of the two Finance Ministers during that administration – ‘Aisake Eke and Tevita Lavemaau.

This eventually brought legal actions from the Pacific Games Council (PGC) against the Government for breaching the contract to host the Games. And TASANOC as a local entity also sued Government claiming their own expenses in making preparation for the cancelled Games. This case is said to be in the stage of ‘Settlement Negotiation’ among the three parties.

The gist of the accusations by Ikani Taliai

Ikani claims that the Pacific Game Organizing Committee (PGOC) is the body to which “Government was contractually and legally bound to provide funding to for costs of organizing and conducting the Pacific Games in Tonga. Costs which estimates have been put at $400 million dollars.”

But he further writes that MCCTIL “has revealed the PGOC was first to be registered as an Incorporated Society, but Lord Sevele communicated his wishes a day later to the ministry to register PGOC only under the Charitable Trust Act 1993 as a Charitable Trust.”

‘Ikani went on to say that “PGOC should have been incorporated as a company; the $400 million in funding would have been vested in the company, which is separate from its membership. As a charitable trust, upon incorporation, the anticipated $400 million in costs for funding the Pacific Games is vested in a Board.”

The Board members are here accused of planning to cheat on the mystery $400 million and may use it for themselves, instead.

But the claims made by both Lord Sevele and Lord Tupou in their filed actions, is that the accusation that Lord Sevele contacted MCCTIL to change the registration into a Charitable Trust is not true. It did not happen, as a source from within says there was no contact with MCCTIL on such matters as ‘Ikani has written.

Furthermore, there was no $400 million, a figure the Plaintiffs say was of the defendant’s own imagination.

‘Ikani also wrote that the cancellation of the hosting of the Games was done after Lord Sevele wrote a letter to the Prime Minister to request $46 million to be given to the organizing committee for ‘operating costs.’

There was no such a letter written, there was no such a request. Essentially, ‘Ikani Taliai would need to provide lots of proof for the vicious accusations that have without doubt damaged the Life Peers’ reputation.

And so now it is in the Magistrate’s Court, first chamber hearing was on Thursday 19th November and the next court date is set for a 3rd December hearing.  Dr. Viliami Latu and Clive Edwards act for the Plaintiffs, and Petunia Tupou for ‘Ikani in his case vs Lord Tupou. But he has no counsel yet in the Lord Sevele case.

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