Acquittal ends seven-year ordeal for rugby player Vili

By Julie Middleton

Rugby player Laurent Vili, 31, is a free man after he was acquitted of murder a second time in New Caledonia. A jury took just an hour on Friday night to end a saga that erupted seven years ago.

"It was hard, it was an ordeal... a journey that today has ended," said Mr Vili, a 1.85m forward, after the verdict.

"I have to confess that what has happened hasn't yet sunk in, but little by little I'm getting my head around it."

Vili was born in New Caledonia to parents from Wallis, another French territory. Simmering inter-ethnic tension exploded in December 2001 when Melanesians attempted to drive out their long-time Wallisian neighbours in the village of Ave Maria, whose residents included Vili's parents.

Wallisian homes were torched and domestic animals slaughtered. Wallisians pleading for police help were told that there had been no orders to intervene.

Fearing for his life one night in January 2002, Mr Vili, at the time a physical education student in France and a Montpellier forward, shot his .27 rifle at a gunman in a tree. Jean-Marie Goyetta, 26, was hit around the same time by a bullet of the same calibre and died several weeks later.

During the subsequent police investigation, Mr Vili, a cousin of Olympian Valerie Vili's husband Bertrand, spent a year in Noumea's prison, ostensibly for his own safety.

He was first acquitted in April, but the public prosecutor appealed. The second court case ran for four days from Tuesday last week, and the prosecution sought six to eight years' jail. Commentators have long speculated that the state wanted a scapegoat to quell tension.

After the verdict, Mr Vili, who has been well-supported by the French rugby fraternity and now plays for Bedarrides, acknowledged the pain of Jean-Marie Goyetta's family and said he hoped people "can find peace and advance [together]".

Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes reported "Jean-Marie's father did not wish a guilty verdict where doubt exists."

- NZ Herald

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