Kiribati has been left without a high-level court after the government ordered the suspension of the three sitting judges of the court of appeal, worsening the constitutional crisis that has been plaguing the Pacific nation for months.
The move came after the suspension and attempted illegal deportation of high court judge, Australian-born David Lambourne last month.
The court of appeal delivered a scathing judgment in the appeal of Lambourne’s case, ruling, that the government’s efforts to strip Lambourne of his judicial responsibilities and deport him were unconstitutional.
The government did not accept this ruling and said it would protect Kiribati from becoming a “judicial tyranny” comparing the court of appeal to the “Nuremberg judges … aiding and abetting Nazi Germany”.
The three appeal court justices, all retired New Zealand judges, were suspended from performing their jobs, with the government citing Section 93(5) of the Kiribati constitution as grounds. This section offers just two reasons for such suspension: infirmity of body and mind or misbehaviour.
The appeal justices – Paul Heath, Peter Blanchard and Rodney Hansen – join the ranks of Lambourne and Kiribati Chief Justice William Hastings, who were also suspended by President Taaneti Maamau earlier this year.
Kiribati’s founding president, Sir Ieremia Tabai said the government’s decision had plunged the country into “crisis”.
“In my view, this is a total disregard for our judicial system… and my view is that we are in a very bad crisis now because there are no more courts to which we can ask for a redress so the whole thing now depends on what the government wants and I think it is a very bad situation to be in,” Tabai said.
Tabai said that he and other MPs would be raising the issue in parliament and raise a confidence motion in respect to the government’s handling of the judiciary.
“My view is that they are trying to buy time to try and achieve what they were after in the first place … which is to end the life appointment of a judge,” he said. “In parliament, we are going to raise the issue very strongly and we hope the members [of parliament] will understand why we are so interested and keen to raise an issue of this nature at this time.”
It is expected Maamau will set up a third tribunal to investigate the court of appeal judges and to allow the tenure of judges in the Kiribati courts to be decided by lawmakers in parliament through a majority vote.
Maamau’s ruling Tobwaan Kiribati party (TKP) currently hold the majority in the Kiribati parliament.