Pitcairn men insist UK has no right to put them on trial

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The Independent Online

Seven men charged with sexually abusing children on remote Pitcairn Island made a final attempt to stave off their impending trial yesterday, arguing that they could not be prosecuted under British law because they were not British subjects.

Seven men charged with sexually abusing children on remote Pitcairn Island made a final attempt to stave off their impending trial yesterday, arguing that they could not be prosecuted under British law because they were not British subjects.

The men mounted a legal case challenging Britain's sovereignty over its last dependent territory in the Pacific. Their lawyers told the Pitcairn Court of Appeal, sitting in Auckland, that their ancestors severed ties with Britain when they burnt the Bounty in 1790 after rebelling against Captain Bligh and fleeing to Pitcairn.

Pitcairn, which is 3,000 miles from New Zealand, was settled by Fletcher Christian and his fellow Bounty mutineers, who took a party of Tahitian men and women with them.

The seven men, all locals, are facing 96 charges of rape and sexual assault, some of which relate to alleged incidents decades ago. Their trial on tiny Pitcairn, located halfway between Peru and New Zealand, is scheduled to begin on 23 September. Six other men are facing similar charges and will be tried later. The allegations included the rape of girls as young as seven and an indecent assault on a girl aged three.

Appealing against a ruling in April by the Pitcairn Supreme Court, Adrian Cook QC argued that the island had never been under British jurisdiction. "They [the mutineers] went to the island to hide from British jurisdiction," he said. "They burnt the ship so they couldn't be detained or couldn't escape from the island."

Mr Cook told the three appeal court judges that none of the mutineers' children had been British, because they were the illegitimate offspring of the sailors and Tahitian women. Thus none of the current Pitcairners could be regarded as British, he said.

Pitcairn, which has a shifting population of 40 to 50 people, is administered by the British High Commissioner in Wellington. It has no airport and no harbour and the shortest voyage there from New Zealand takes at least eight days.

Most islanders still bear the names of the Bounty mutineers and speak a hybrid of Tahitian and 18th-century English.

The charges were laid after an inquiry by Kent Police, who interviewed dozens of women and girls who lived on the island during the past 40 years.

The criminal proceedings were set in motion by a girl aged 15 who claimed in 1999 that she had been raped by a visiting New Zealander. The case was dealt with by islanders, but it prompted other girls to come forward with accounts of alleged sexual mistreatment by islanders. The case affects nearly every family on Pitcairn, and local people say the island has no future if most of its able-bodied men are jailed.

The appeal is expected to last all week.

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