Two former Samoan ministers sentenced to die for murdering rival

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Two former Cabinet ministers were sentenced to death Thursday for plotting the murder of another member of Samoa's government, the first assassination in the tiny Pacific Island nation's history.

Judge Andrew Wilson, upholding a 4-1 decision by a jury-like panel, said he could find no reason to overrule Wednesday's verdict and sentenced the men to hang.

Former women's affairs minister Leafa Vitale, 57, and ex-communications minister Toi Aukuso, 68, were convicted of planning the murder of Luagalau Levaula Kamu, 44, who was shot in the back while he spoke on his mobile telephone at a political gathering on July 16.

If the sentence is carried out, the two would be the first people executed in Samoa since it gained independence in 1961.

But executions are unlikely. Since independence, the country's head of state has commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment.

Throughout the trial, Vitale denied ordering the hit and described Kamu as a "very good friend."

But Aukuso testified that Vitale asked him to shoot Kamu and Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. Aukuso said he refused after Vitale failed to pay him as promised.

A popular figure, Kamu was part of a new wave of young politicians seeking to clean up politics. His killing was seen as an attempt to prevent publication of fresh reports on corruption believed to implicate former ministers and legislators.

Prosecutors also said the former ministers had Kamu killed because they were jealous that he was appointed to the public works Cabinet post, a position known to receive bribes from local companies competing for government-funded contracts.

Samoa is a former German and New Zealand territory, once known as Western Samoa, with a population of about 164,000 spread over an island chain. The U.S. territory of American Samoa comprises several islands in the same group.

Lawyers for Aukuso and Vitale said they would ask head of state Malietoa Tanumafili II to commute the sentences.

Kamu's widow, Maiava Visekota Peteru, backed clemency, saying outside court that she does not support capital punishment.

Kamu's murder shocked people in the the normally placid region. The three-month trial focused attention on government corruption in Samoa, which is about 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) east of Australia.

Vitale's son, Alatise, 34, was earlier convicted of shooting Kamu with an M-16 rifle. His death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

Alatise Vitale testified in the most recent trial that his father and friend ordered him to carry out the killing.

The courtroom was filled with spectators and members of the defendants' and victim's families when the sentences were handed down.

Neither responded in court, but as the pair was led out by police, Aukuso looked back and waved goodbye to relatives.

From the back of a police van which took the men to Tafaigata prison in Apia, Aukuso yelled, "Not guilty, not guilty. It's foul play."