Ministers' hitman taints Pacific paradise island

Samoa, where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of 'easy, merry and leisure-loving folk of ceaseless song' is left horrified by assassination
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Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer who was one of Samoa's most celebrated residents, described the inhabitants of the South Pacific island as "easy, merry and leisure-loving" folk who engaged in "almost ceaseless" song.

Stevenson, who is buried above Apia, the capital, would have been horrified by the evidence given in a 12-week trial that has shattered the island's tranquil image and ended this week with two government ministers convicted of assassinating a cabinet colleague.

Leafa Vitale, 57, the former Women's Affairs Minister, and Toi Aukoso, 68, the former Communications Minister, will be sentenced to hang if the presiding Supreme Court judge, Justice Andrew Wilson, confirms the verdicts of a panel of five Samoan elders. He was due to rule late yesterday.

A 4-1 majority of the "assessors" found Vitale and Aukoso guilty of murdering Luagalau Levaula Kamu, the Public Works Minister, at a gathering of the ruling Human Rights Protection Party last July. Both men had denied the charges.

Vitale's 34-year-old son, Eletise Vitale, confessed to shooting Mr Kamu in the back at close range with an M16 semi-automatic rifle while he was talking to his niece on his mobile telephone. During the trial, he initially denied that his father was involved. But he later turned state witness and testified that the killing had been ordered by his father and Aukoso.

During the trial, which took place in stifling heat in the Congregation of Christian Churches hall in Apia, Leafa Vitale, who wore a traditional lap-lap skirt with a shirt and tie, told the court he still loved his son despite his actions.

Mr Kamu, part of a new wave of young politicians bent on cleaning up Samoan politics, was said to have been murdered to prevent him from revealing widespread corruption and misuse of public funds by various former ministers and politicians. Leafa Vitale and Aukoso were also said to have been jealous of Mr Kamu because his cabinet post meant that he would be the beneficiary of bribes offered by companies competing for government-funded contracts. Leafa Vitale held the Public Works portfolio until he was demoted to Women's Affairs as part of the anti-corruption drive.

Eletise Vitale's death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and his wife and children have been relocated to New Zealand under a witness protection scheme. The two former ministers are likely to receive the same clemency; Samoa has not hanged anyone since independence in 1961.

During the trial, which heard evidence from 65 witnesses, Leafa Vitale denied ordering the murder and described Mr Kamu as "a very good friend". Aukoso gave a different version of events, telling the court that Leafa Vitale had asked him to shoot both Mr Kamu and the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. He claimed that he refused to carry out the killings after Leafa Vitale failed to pay him the US$500,000 fee. Aukoso's barrister said his client was incapable of murder, describing him as an animal lover who adored his dogs and wept when forced to sell his beloved cattle.

The court was told that Leafa Vitale took his son aside before the murder and told him: "You, Eletise, are my eldest son. You must listen to me and walk in my footsteps." He then outlined the plot. Aukoso was said to have told the young man, in a reference to Mr Kamu: "If you find that dog, just blow him away." On the night of the political gathering, a celebration to mark the 20th anniversary of the ruling party, Eletise Vitale pointed the rifle through a chink in some brickwork and fired a single shot at Mr Kamu, who died from his injuries less than an hour later. The trial was moved to the church hall because the court-house was too small to accommodate the large crowds of spectators. It was held amidsecurity measures unprecedented in Samoa, with members of the public searched with metal detectors before they were allowed to watch the proceedings inside the hall.

Mr Kamu's murder - the first political assassination carried out since the former German and New Zealand territory became independent - stunned the nation. Samoa, which has a population of 164,000 and used to be called Western Samoa, has largely escaped the violence and political turmoil that has marred life in other parts of the South Pacific.

Stevenson was not the only writer to wax lyrical about the island. The war poet Rupert Brooke described Samoans as "the loveliest people in the world, moving and dancing like gods and goddesses, very quietly and mysteriously, and utterly content".