KIRITIMATI ISLAND, Kiribati (Reuters) - When Joao Goncalves limped into Kiritimati Island’s vast lagoon in the central Pacific Ocean earlier this year, his yacht damaged by storms while sailing from Tahiti, relief at finding a safe haven was short-lived.
Goncalves, a surfer and hotel owner from the Portuguese town of Peniche, was raided by police who found a small quantity of marijuana and $20,000 that had not been declared on his customs form. He was locked up in a rudimentary prison on one of the world’s most remote islands for more than three weeks, his boat impounded and access to his funds and property restricted.
Months later, Goncalves, 41, remains trapped on the island in a judicial limbo that is all too common on isolated and poor islands across the Pacific: A shortage of lawyers and judges is hindering access to legal representation and preventing timely processing of cases for both visitors and locals alike.
“Our research has shown a serious lack of lawyers in the South Pacific,” said Ross Ray, the chair of the South Pacific Lawyers’ Association. “This is of concern as lawyers are critical to supporting the justice system.”
Kiritimati (pronounced Christmas) is a far-flung outpost of the Republic of Kiribati. The world’s largest coral atoll, Kiritimati has just one flight a week to either Fiji or Hawaii, four-and-a-half hours in either direction.
Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bahs) lies nearly 3,300 km (2,000 miles) to the west - about three weeks by boat.
No lawyers are based on Kiritimati and the High Court only comes once or twice a year to clear a backlog of the most serious cases, bringing a public lawyer for defendants who can’t afford their own.
Other cases are heard in a local magistrates court, where defendants usually appear without legal representation.
Katokiau Maruai, a 35-year-old father of three, received a seven-year prison sentence from the local magistrate on three domestic violence-related offences last year, his first time in trouble with the law, he says.
“No, no, no - no lawyer,” Maruai told Reuters inside the prison when asked about legal representation. “There are no lawyers here. They live on Tarawa.”
While inmates in the prison have regular access to visitors and no complaints about their treatment, conditions inside are poor.
Prisoners - numbering around 50 men, plus one woman and her baby - complain about the inadequate water from the well; the shortages of food; the cramped, hot communal sleeping conditions and the single latrine that often overflows. Flooding El Nino rains earlier this year left water almost knee-deep in the coral rubble yard, where inmates make fishing nets and handicrafts for a little income.
Only a handful of guards and a chain-link fence keep the inmates from freedom, though it’s more than a day away by boat to the nearest island.
Across the 33 islands of Kiribati, there is just one lawyer for every 12,593 people, according to a 2011 survey by the South Pacific Lawyers Association. That compares with one lawyer for every 351 in Australia or 418 in the United Kingdom.
Mikarite Temari, a development minister for the string of atolls and low lying islands scattered along the Equator, said the government plas to establish a lawyer’s office “maybe this year or next year”.
While the marine life is rich, infrastructure is basic and legal services are not the only thing in short supply on Kiritimati, which is home to around 10,000 people.
The ship which delivers most of the island’s food hadn’t been sighted for several months and the weekly flights are also sometimes canceled, most recently earlier in April.
For Goncalves, the Portuguese surfer, the cancellation of the flight was a bitter blow. Having been bailed to a local hotel for several months, he was eagerly awaiting the arrival of his lawyer and the judge so his case could be heard.
The next High Court hearing in Kiritimati is due, perhaps, in June, so Goncalves is trying to get his case moved to the capital Tarawa.
“I need to be at a place that I can be judged,” said Goncalves, his face etched by sun and worry. “All I want at this moment is to be judged. It’s impossible.”
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Bill Tarrant.