Tonga's police on alert before bumper day in court

By Angela Gregory

Tongan police say they are ready to quell any trouble as 78 people facing charges in connection with last month's riot appear in court today.

Police commander Sinilau Kolokihakaufisi told the Herald he had heard rumours that more attacks on property were planned today as some of those accused made their first appearance in the Nuku'alofa Magistrates Court.

"We are prepared to counter any disturbance."

Mr Kolokihakaufisi said 78 people were expected to appear for callover, mostly on theft or damage to property charges, and to renew bail conditions.

So far 790 people have been arrested for allegedly being involved in the sacking and burning of central Nuku'alofa and damage to businesses in surrounding districts.

Mr Kolokihakaufisi said 569 of those were aged under 30 years.

The total included 83 youths aged 17 or younger for whom a youth diversion programme had been introduced to speed up the judicial process.

The scheme aimed to enable those who played a role in causing damage to understand the harm they caused, acknowledge responsibility and help repair the damage.

Mr Kolokihakaufisi said the youngest alleged offender was aged 12 and the oldest was 70.

The most serious charge laid so far was arson, but it was likely that murder charges would result from the ongoing investigations, he said.

Seven people died when the Shoreline power company building was set alight.

Mr Kolokihakaufisi said he was confident the Tongan judicial system could cope with the large number of accused.

More arrests were expected and could include the ringleaders of the riot once the evidence was amassed.

Government spokesman Lopeti Senituli said because of the investigations, emergency powers would be to January 17. That would include the blockade of the central business area and prohibition of political meetings.

Mr Senituli said the special measures would not prevent kava sessions or Christmas parties.

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