Today, we are publishing the continuing story of a five part editorial. To appreciate the entire set of events, we invite you to continue reading over the next two days.
When the defense presented its case, counsel Harry Schuster asked the court to dismiss the charge against his client. He argued that the prosecution had failed to prove Jin Jipei knew the Western Samoan passport he had bought and used, was illegal.
“No evidence had been produced by the prosecution to show the defendant had any part in the issuing of the passport,” Mr Schuster told the court. “In his mind, he thought the passport was valid. If I might add the defendant has been overcharged. It costs only $100 (for a Samoan passport.)”
He was referring to the $US3,000 his client had reportedly paid for his passport in Tonga.
Besides, the lawyer argued that the defendant would have been “stupid” to come to Western Samoa if he’d known the passport he was to use was not valid. In fact, Mr Schuster argued that the passport had a “valid number” which “made the document valid to the user.”
In response prosecutor, Potoae Tanielu, disagreed. She said the passport the defendant had purchased bore a false name which indicated he was aware it might be illegal. She also pointed out that “evidence already before the court showed” that the defendant had procured the passport in Tongan under “suspicious” circumstances.
His Worship Tagaloa rejected the defense submission saying “the law is specific as to who is qualified to get a passport and who is to use it.” He said there was no evidence before the court that the defendant knew the passport was invalid, but there were circumstantial evidence that indicated to the contrary.
One of them was the offer by the defendant “of a gold ring and other items to an immigration officer” at the airport asking him to let him stay, when he was told the passport was “no good.” Besides, His Worship pointed at the defendant’s refusal to disclose the person from whom he had purchased the passport, except only by referring to him in a letter as “Mr Chan.”
When he took the stand Jin Jipei denied he had tried to bribe an immigration officer with a “gold ring and other items.” He said it was when he was pulled aside by the immigration officer when the validity of his passport was being questioned, that someone gestured to him to give his gold ring to the officer. He said he was later told this was normal in Samoa.
That officer was Siapo Pese. He had earlier testified that he and Jin Jipei had talked in English at the airport the night Jin Jipei arrived. It was then that Jin Jipei has “solicited his assistance,” Pese had told the court. This, however, was denied by Jin Jipei.
“Did you say to Siapo: ‘Help me officer?’” His Worship asked Jin Jipei.
“No,” Jipei replied.
He also denied asking Pese in English whether the passport he was using was all right.
On the unknown “Mr Chan,” Jin Jipei told the court he did not know him well. They met through a mutual acquaintance, he said. It was a brief meeting in which “Mr Chan” told him he lived in Tonga, and that he could get him a Western Samoan passport for “$US4,000.”
During the trial, suggestions were made by the defence that some of the evidence presented by the prosecution might not have been obtained legally. It involved Jipei’s Chinese passport and a letter he was reported to have sent to the Chinese Embassy.
Asked by co-defense counsel Leulua’i Tasi Malifa if he had been told by the Police his Chinese passport would be used against him in the current proceedings, Jin Jipei said: “No.”
Also asked if he had been told the letter he had sent to the Chinese Embassy would be used against him in the trial, he also said: “No.”
Jin Jipei’s lawyers told the court “we are not challenging the admissibility of the evidence but we ask the court to attach the appropriate weight in view of these facts.”
The trial took three days. His Worship reserved his ruling.
And then a “Yellow Cabinet Paper” turned up. In it was a copy of an official message sent to all government departments; it advised that the prime minister was delivering a ministerial statement in the next session of Parliament. The paper also advised that the Commission of Inquiry into the passport scandal had completed its investigation and that its report had been received.
That report said the Commission had “confirmed the existence of a serious situation at the Immigration Department” with “several discrepancies that have been going on in there for sometime.
“In view of this there is no denying that Samoan passports were issued to some who are not citizens of Western Samoa. There is a strong suspicion that Immigration Department employees are involved, some of whom have been suspended.”
And then came the tricky part: “There is a plan for the PM to offer a report to Parliament in its next session in a ministerial statement.”
Now the message was clear. That ministerial statement would prevent the Foreign Investment Bill and the passport scandal from being debated in Parliament. The headline on the front page of the Sunday Samoan on 15 June 1997 read: “No debate on passport scandal expected.” The public reaction was a mixture of ridicule and disgust.
When the ministerial statement was tabled in the House it effectively silenced debate on the passport scandal, and the Opposition’s demand that the matter should be publicly debated was ignored.
The government remained unmoved, and Deputy Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele was particularly stubborn. He said the government did not want the matter debated, period. He insisted: “There is no point in bringing these things (inside Parliament). The government has never authorized the selling of passports.”
He also said: “What the Speaker should see are the government documents and files now in my possession. The overseas part of the matter should not be brought into Parliament because it is of no use.
“Parliament can only discuss the matter after the Police’s investigation is completed.”
But then even his own colleagues in Cabinet were unimpressed. One of them was Minister of Works, Leafa Vitale. He disagreed. He took the floor and asked the Speaker to allow “all allegations, evidence and publications about the sale of passports in Hong Kong, for Parliament to debate.”
However, Tuilaepa was obstinate. He would not be out-argued. He was up on his feet in a jiff announcing that his objection remained, and then zeroing into the Samoa Observer, he snorted: “I wish the Samoa Observer would have asked the government about the passport scam so that they could have been told the truth.”
Before his behind had touched his seat though, Opposition MP Tuala Falenaoti was on the floor, interjecting: “But what is happening is that the Samoa Observer has been publishing the truth.
“There is no more denying that Western Samoan passports are being sold overseas at very high prices.”
She then proposed to allow the passport scandal for Parliament debate.
But that only fuelled Tuilaepa’s determination who was on the floor once again and repeated his objection.
“Such things should have never been made public,” he insisted. “The problem is that the Samoa Observer is being run by fools.”
Tomorrow’s Part 4 editorial, “In the end, Tuilaepa won”