The future of the tiny Pacific island of Pitcairn is in doubt after nine men – a quarter of the population – were charged with sex crimes against girls from their own community.
The charges affect nearly every family on Pitcairn, a pinprick of volcanic rock 3,000 miles from New Zealand, which was settled by Fletcher Christian and his fellow Bounty mutineers in 1790. They follow a two-year investigation by Kent police, who uncovered dozens of allegations of rape and sexual abuse by girls who grew up on the island.
The Pitcairn public prosecutor, Simon Moore, said in a statement issued through the British High Commission in Wellington, New Zealand, yesterday that the men would appear in court tomorrow for a pre-trial hearing. Further charges are expected to be laid against 10 other men who are former Pitcairn islanders living in New Zealand.
Mr Moore said last year that he intended to lay charges for the rape of girls as young as seven and 10, and for indecent assault against a girl aged three. The police investigation, which began in 1999, has upset those living on Pitcairn, Britain's last dependent territory in the South Seas. The community of 45 has been forced to contemplate the notion that terrible things have allegedly been going on in its midst. Now it faces the possibility of losing many of its men – a blow to a place already suffering economic hardship.
The magistrate on Pitcairn, Gray Cameron, ordered most details of the case to be suppressed when he charged the nine men in Adamstown, the main settlement, on Friday. Yesterday's statement said only that the charges alleged "offending of a sexual nature".
Pitcairn, which is governed by the British High Commissioner in Wellington, is one of the most isolated spots on the planet, accessible only by sea.
The legal team, including Mr Moore, Mr Cameron and prosecution and defence lawyers, had to wait for the islanders to bring them in by longboat after a two-day voyage by boat from French Polynesia. Reportedly, the encounter was frosty.
After locals had ferried the lawyers and police officers to dry land, Mr Moore promptly laid the charges. If the cases go ahead, the inner workings of the community will be exposed at a criminal trial that promises to be one of the most complex in British legal history.
Detectives interviewed every woman and girl who had lived on the island in the past 20 years, travelling to New Zealand, Australia and Britain. There are understood to be about 20 alleged victims.
Proceedings would probably take place in New Zealand, which recently passed legislation allowing for a trial to be held in its jurisdiction and providing for prison sentences to be served there, if necessary.
Pitcairn residents would like it to be held on the island. But Pitcairn, which has no airstrip, is considered too remote to be a suitable venue; it also lacks infrastructure such as a large court room and holding cells.
Most of Pitcairn's residents are descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Polynesian wives. All are converts to Seventh Day Adventism. They bear the surnames of their mutinous ancestors, and spend their days fishing, growing vegetables and carving wooden souvenirs to sell to passing cruise ships. There are no cars on the island, and no television.
The existence sounded idyllic until the sex scandal broke, and indeed Pitcairn had been idealised by the outside world. But some visitors returned with tales of a claustrophobic, inter-related community that was riven by petty rows and long-running feuds.
Herb Ford, an American academic who has close links with the island, said yesterday that all the allegations would be vigorously contested.
The mayor, Tom Christian, said residents had been inviting defence lawyers into their homes for meals. "The prosecutor and police are being ignored," he said.
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. A Kent police constable, Gail Cox, who was temporarily stationed on Pitcairn, began an inquiry.
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