Accused rugby star returned to France

By Julie Middleton

By JULIE MIDDLETON

Laurent Vili, one of New Caledonia's most well-known murder accused - or political prisoners, according to his supporters - has left the country. But that's not the end of a story that started among flying bullets and racial tension.

Vili, aged 26 and of Wallis Island descent, is charged with the murder of Melanesian Jean-Marie Goyeta in a long-running dispute. The dispute saw native Melanesians, who once welcomed Wallesians to their tribal land at St Louis, near Noumea, using bullets and arson to try to remove them.

Vili, at the time living in Montpellier in France, where he played professional rugby part-time, came home to defend his parents at the height of the drama, in December 2001.

During confused shooting, Goyeta, 26, was hit and later died from his injuries.

Eight months later, Vili, back in Montpellier, was arrested and placed in isolation in Noumea's Camp Est prison to protect him from Melanesian reprisals.

Supporters say there is no proof Vili shot anyone, and that he is a scapegoat.

Vili was transferred to a prison at Fresnes, near Paris, on Tuesday. A shoulder injury sustained just before he was arrested - and now threatening his playing ability - needs a delicate operation and specialist care. Doctors nominated by the judge in charge of the case will decide whether that can be done in a prison hospital.

The leader of Vili's Montpellier Rugby Club support committee, Michel Bonnaud, snatched a couple of seconds with the well-liked "rugbyman" at Paris' Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport.

Supporters see Vili's transfer as a major win in their campaign for his release. They hope that he will be remanded at large in Montpellier until a trial. If this happens, his partner, Sarah D'Almeida, hopes he can resume his degree studies in physical education.

But such liberty is by no means certain, says New Caledonia's prosecutor, Robert Blaser. "The transfer is for medical reasons."

But is the sudden transfer related to the recent visit of France's President, Jacques Chirac to New Caledonia and the audience his family secured with one of his aides? "Not to my knowledge," says Blaser. "There are no links. Mr Vili isn't free - he's been transferred."

But the first anniversary of Vili's imprisonment is coming up, says Blaser, "and the law requires that the issue [of his detention] be revisited in front of a judge".

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