Judge recalls time in Solomon Islands

By Laurel Stowell

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Judge David Cameron brought items from the Solomon Islands back to New Zealand. PHOTO/ BEVAN CONLEY
Judge David Cameron brought items from the Solomon Islands back to New Zealand. PHOTO/ BEVAN CONLEY

Whanganui District Court Judge David Cameron spent four years in Solomon Islands where he had a pet crocodile and tried a number of murderers.

He was there from January 2007 to December 2010, one of about six high court judges trying people arrested and imprisoned during the "tensions" of 1999-2003. Many of those trials were for murder.

The tensions arose when people from the smaller Malaita Island went to Guadalcanal, wanting jobs. Guadalcanal locals wanted the jobs for themselves. Militias were formed, one group aligned with government and the other with the Malaitan migrants.

Judge Cameron had spent the 17 years to 2007 as senior partner in a Wellington law firm, doing mainly civil litigation. Going to the Solomons gave him the opportunity to move up to judge, and he had to learn quickly.

When he and wife Pru got to the Solomon Islands capital Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal, there were at least 80 criminal trials waiting.

Many of the accused were leaders of the Malaita Eagle Force who had been imprisoned without trial for two or three years.

By 2007 a peace and reconciliation process had happened. The Malaitans were accepted on Guadalcanal and there was relative calm across the islands.

The Solomons justice system is British so trials were by jury and criminal court judges were expected to wear wigs and red robes in the air-conditioned court rooms.

One of Judge Cameron's most memorable cases was the trial of Jimmy Lusibaea, a Malaita Eagle Force leader accused of shooting an unconscious man in both kneecaps. The man would not give evidence against Lusibaea, but Judge Cameron intended to use an earlier statement from him as evidence.

Hearing that, Lusibaea pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to prison for two years and nine months. Solomon Islands governments change often, and he was Minister of Fisheries at the time.

The sentence caused a lot of unrest, with rioting, rocks thrown at police cars and break-ins to retailers in Honiara Chinatown. There were 50 arrests as a result.

Life on a beautiful tropical island had some pluses. Mrs Cameron enjoyed her voluntary work and there was wonderful snorkelling and scuba diving on pristine reefs.

The Camerons like animals. They got to see the snakes captured in their compound at night. They kept two parrots, both species of lory.

They bought a saltwater crocodile that had been injured in a fishing net, and called it Ego. They found a puppy on the side of a road, bought it and have been able to bring it back to New Zealand.

It wasn't an easy life though. The temperature was an average 33degC and the city of Honiara grimy. There were only 30km of sealed roads on the islands and no effective health care system.

The houses of expatriates could be broken into at night by youths armed with machetes. Because Judge Cameron was contracted to help out he lived in a walled compound that was guarded at night.

Most of the people brought in to help in the Solomons under the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) had terms of two years or less. He agreed to stay longer.

But he was glad to return to New Zealand, be appointed District Court Judge for Whanganui and move here in April 2011. Being a district court judge is different from his Solomons work. It's busy but there's lots of variety, which makes for a refreshing change.

He and his wife have enjoyed Whanganui, where she loves her nursing job. They'll be leaving next year, Judge Cameron having accepted a transfer to Tauranga.

The two have no regrets about their time in Solomon Islands.

"We're very pleased to have done it. We have made a lot of friends and the experience is unique and will always stay with us."

- Wanganui Chronicle

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