By JULIE MIDDLETON
Only 1500km away, in a tropical country a two-hour plane ride from Auckland, a 26-year-old man sits alone in a prison cell.
He has been in isolation in the New Caledonian capital, Noumea, for nine months. He has no trial in sight, and two requests by his lawyers for a release on probation have been refused.
Visitors can see him for half an hour twice a week. He leans heavily on his religious faith to keep his spirits up. Supporters are trying to remain upbeat, but the strain is all over their faces.
They call him "Lolo", as do fans on the sidelines at Montpellier rugby club in France, where the semi-professional prop is known as a gentle giant who has never been handed a red card.
Laurent Vili, born in New Caledonia of Wallis Island descent, is known to New Zealanders, too.
At 1997's Robin Tait Classic in Hamilton, he hurled the discus more than 41m to finish fifth, just behind Simon Poelman.
Oh well, you might think, yet another promising athlete fallen from grace.
But to New Zealand eyes, some things about the case are puzzling. The first is that Vili has been in prison so long without trial.
He is accused of shooting a man dead, but his three lawyers say there is no proof and that he is a scapegoat for interracial fighting handled badly by nervous New Caledonian authorities.
Bizarrely, the victim, 26-year-old Jean-Marie Goyeta, was buried without autopsy, then exhumed 14 months later for bullet fragments to be removed for testing.
Lastly comes the vicious interracial violence.
Racked by near-civil war until the late 1980s, New Caledonia's 207,000 people are delicately inching towards a future independent of France. Two accords, Matignon and Noumea, lay out a blueprint for this and give greater clout to the indigenous people.
Called Kanaks after their name for New Caledonia, Kanaky, they make up 42.5 per cent of the population. Europeans make up 37 per cent, and relatively recent arrivals from the more northerly islands of Wallis and Futuna, 8.4 per cent.
For several decades there have been clashes between Kanaks and Wallisians, mostly over land and often fuelled by Kanak resentment of Wallisians' greater economic successes and their anti-independence lean.
There are more Wallisians in New Caledonia than their homeland. They are industrious workers often preferred by bosses.
At Vili's home village of St Louis, 10km northeast of Noumea, Kanaks live on 400ha handed back by the state, and about 1000 Wallisians on an adjoining 23ha.
They have been neighbours for 40 years, separated by the river Thy. But months of Kanak harassment of Wallisians flared into open warfare one summer's night in December 2001. Several dozen Kanaks with guns crossed the river, chasing away Wallisian residents, then torching their homes.
Vili's parents were among those to see their home razed. Their animals were slaughtered. There was an ultimatum: that land is ours - you have a month to get out. A worried Vili, who had been in France for several years studying for a physical education degree with long-time partner Sarah d'Almeida, flew home.
Women and children were evacuated from St Louis. Vili was among about 100 young men who took up a 24-hour vigil behind sandbags, scarves over their faces. Newspaper pictures show them clutching the 27mm-calibre hunting rifles readily available in New Caledonia.
According to witnesses, the police were about a kilometre back, on the main road. Wallisians who asked them for help say they were told that no orders to intervene had been received.
The French news magazine L'Express described this bizarre watching brief as "a show of public impotence" and speculated that police were not willing to risk making a bad situation worse.
On the night the ultimatum was to expire, January 7 last year, tension was high. Shooting went on all night. As dawn broke, the Kanaks again crossed the river. Vili was in a ditch with his cousin when he looked up and saw a man standing in a tree, wearing a gunbelt across his body, aiming at him.
Vili, panicking, aimed his rifle at the man's thigh to defend himself, fired, then ducked back down into the ditch.
He never saw the man fall and wasn't sure that he had hit him. Around the same time Jean-Marie Goyeta was hit in the stomach by a bullet of the same type Vili and many others were using.
"What Laurent has said since the beginning," says D'Almeida, "is that the man he aimed at was in a tree, wearing a gunbelt. All the witnesses [some of them Melanesian] say that Jean-Marie was standing on the ground and wasn't wearing a gunbelt. That's why Laurent is convinced of his innocence: the man he aimed at wasn't Jean-Marie Goyeta."
Goyeta was belatedly taken to hospital; Vili, whose rifle was lost in the confusion, returned to France in mid-January. In early February Goyeta, who had suffered an infection and slipped into a coma, died.
He wasn't autopsied, says public prosecutor Robert Blaser, because it was the beginning of a weekend in the middle of the summer holidays and no pathologist was available.
Doctors had not told police they had a shooting victim on their hands. And Goyeta's extended family congregated at the hospital in such anger that doctors feared violence and handed over the body.
The inquiry into his death was hampered by continuing violence that made St Louis a police no-go area for many weeks.
It wasn't until August last year that Vili was arrested at his home in France and told he was suspected of premeditated murder.
Under the French legal system in force in New Caledonia, the public prosecutor orders an investigation, then decides whether a case is worth pursuing.
If there is doubt, an examining judge is brought in to question the suspect. This is where Vili's case is at present. For accusations such as murder, suspects can be held for up to three years while examination continues, says Blaser.
He expects the case will progress to trial next year. There are several reasons Vili has to be kept locked up, he says, but the principal one is public order. In addition, "if Vili is freed, his safety cannot be guaranteed".
Vili is in Noumea's Camp-Est prison. He is in isolation because most of the inmates are Kanak, some from St Louis.
Rumour and speculation abound. Some say it was a gendarme who accidentally shot Goyeta, and that a scapegoat is needed. Goyeta's family have said on television that Vili did it.
Others allege that race and politics are so delicately balanced in New Caledonia that the quickest way to bury the affair is to put someone away.
Blaser admits bluntly that the situation is not helped by the fact that no one has been charged for two other shootings during the months of violence at St Louis: the murder of a young Wallisian and the attempted murder of a policeman who was shot in the back by a hunting rifle. Crimes arising out of such public unrest are difficult to investigate, he says. And yes, of course the judiciary is independent.
Vili's lawyer in Montpellier, Andre Ferran, claims justice has been overtaken by politics. "Why did the authorities let the two communities stage a civil war? This affair is, above all, political, and I don't want Laurent to be the scapegoat."
The story took a macabre twist in April when Goyeta's body was exhumed 14 months after burial. Blaser says exhumation was necessary to allow identification of bullet fragments left in the body. They suggested 27mm bullets. Suddenly, Vili lost a major plank of his defence.
Vili has no shortage of supporters. Two support committees have been created, one in each country, and a website follows the case. The Montpellier club pays the bills of Vili's lawyers, two in Noumea and one in France. Players wear blue T-shirts with the words "Justice pour Lolo". In Noumea in May, a march with the slogan "Liberez Lolo!" attracted 400 chanting and singing people.
According to daily paper Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes, about 80 Kanaks at St Louis ran their own counter-protest, placing banners at the side of the main road reading "Keep Lolo in prison!", shooting into the air and setting fire to piles of tyres.
Undaunted, Vili's supporters staged a sit-in at court several weeks ago to hear the second application for his release on probation. It was rebuffed. The main reason, again, was maintaining public order.
Aukusitino Manuohalalo, of the Citizens Movement, thinks that is a cop-out. "Public order must be assured by the state, not by the continued detention of Laurent Vili." Even right-wingers have doubts. The National Front's Bernard Herpin says, "The judicial investigation is stained by politics".
Human Rights League president Elie Poigoune sits on the fence. "We remind everyone that [Vili] can't be sentenced without proof. We still have confidence in the institutions of the republic."
Kanak chief Jean-Charles Nemoadjou accuses Vili's supporters of racheting up tension with their public protests.
And the land wars that started it all? According to Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes, negotiations overseen by high commissioner Daniel Constantin have led to the decision that some Wallisian land at St Louis will be handed back to Kanaks. Some Wallisian families will be allowed to stay, but the rest, according to Constantin, must be allowed to depart "with dignity".
That's ethnic cleansing, snorts the independent political newspaper Le Chien Bleu (The Blue Dog). "If France did this in the suburbs of Paris, it would be condemned by the whole world." This week violent clashes continued.
Meanwhile, Vili sits in prison contemplating the night that changed his life forever. In a letter to teammates, he describes fellow prisoners "drowning in their distress. They've all attempted suicide in front of my eyes."
Most of those who have tried to kill themselves "are now in a psychiatric centre. The last to go died a few days after leaving here for the centre. I don't know how to protect myself against this and I have hit rock bottom.
"My religious beliefs, Sarah's love, and your support help. Why am I telling you about such an awful part of my life? To remind you of the value of life. Whatever your passions, life is the greatest of them all. Live it."