On a South Pacific island, half the adult male population goes on trial

In one of oddest cases in legal history, seven face charges of sex abuse on land of 'Bounty' mutineers
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The Independent Online

Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific will host one of the most sensational trials in British legal history this week, with seven men facing nearly 100 charges of rape and child sex abuse dating back to the 1960s.

Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific will host one of the most sensational trials in British legal history this week, with seven men facing nearly 100 charges of rape and child sex abuse dating back to the 1960s.

The seven, all residents of the remote British dependency, were given a final opportunity last week to plead guilty and reduce their chances of long jail sentences. At a pre-trial hearing on Thursday, they were offered the option of "restorative justice", a process that would bring them face to face with victims and require them to make reparations.

The trial, which begins on Wednesday, has devastated a tiny community that traces its roots back to the Bounty mutiny of 1789, when it was settled by Fletcher Christian and other mutineers.

The seven represent half of the adult male population of Pitcairn, which is home to just 47 people. Virtually everyone in the claustrophobically close-knit society is related to one or more of the defendants and/or the alleged victims.

Some of the women still live on the island with their alleged assailants who have been free on bail since they were charged 18 months ago. The latter helped to build the prison in which they could eventually be incarcerated, and still take part in the communal work - such as manning the longboats - that is essential to Pitcairn daily life. A second batch of six men, who now live in Australia and New Zealand, will go on trial next year, charged with similar offences.

The case is a logistical nightmare for the British Government, which rules Pitcairn through its High Commissioner in Wellington, Richard Fell. Located in a far-flung corner of the South Pacific, the dependent territory is accessible only by boat, requiring a two-day voyage from Mangareva, a French Polynesian island 250 miles away. The authorities have had to ship in an entire court, comprising judges, lawyers, police and court officials, together with all their documents and supplies. Nine of the 12 alleged victims will give evidence via a video-link from Auckland, the New Zealand city where many now live. In Adamstown, Pitcairn's only settlement, the courthouse - a village hall rarely used for its original purpose - has been spruced up, while the schoolhouse will be used as a second court.

The investigation into allegations of systematic sexual abuse of young girls on the island began after a Kent constable, Gail Cox, was sent to conduct training in community policing. Two girls made complaints to her against older men, prompting an inquiry that lasted two years and spanned three continents.

The offer of restorative justice, a system pioneered by New Zealand, has been on the table since the men were charged. But they have shown no inclination to accept it, instead concentrating their energies on mounting challenges to Britain's sovereignty. The unique circumstances of the trial have thrown up exceptional challenges and forced conventional proprieties to be abandoned. The court's entire personnel flew to Tahiti together and on to Mangareva, where the judges, prosecution lawyers and defence team boarded a small boat to Pitcairn. A second boatload, carrying diplomats and police witnesses, will arrive today. Accommodation is so limited that the defence lawyers will sleep in the prison.

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