Kiribati founding father accuses Government of covering up fatal ferry disaster

TARAWA, 22 NOVEMBER 2018 (ABC) – Kiribati’s first president has accused the country’s current leader of withholding a report into a ferry disaster in January that killed at least 80 people, because he says they are “trying to hide the fact they’re responsible”.

The MV Butiraoi sank in January when making the journey from the island of Nonouti to the Pacific island nation’s capital of South Tarawa with about 100 people on board, many of them teenage students travelling to begin the school year.

The 17-metre catamaran was not reported missing until eight days after contact was lost, although the journey should only have taken two days, and only seven people were found alive.

The Government established a commission of inquiry into the sinking, and early media reports suggested the boat was unseaworthy and overloaded with passengers and cargo.

The ABC understands the commission’s final report has been completed, but not distributed to MPs or the public.

Grief and anger rocked the country following the tragedy, and some estimate between 4 and 5 per cent of the population of the tiny island of Nonouti was on board the boat.

“My view is that the Government is trying to hide the fact that it is responsible for what has happened,” the MP for Nonouti, Sir Ieremia Tabai, told the ABC’s Pacific Beat programme.

Sir Ieremia, who was Kiribati’s first president and known as one of the country’s founding fathers, is now an opposition MP.

“For one, they allowed the boat to go into the ocean when it [was] unseaworthy. The Government should have stopped the boat from sailing. That is their responsibility under the law,” he said.

“I don’t know why they [waited] for one week.”

The ABC made repeated requests for comment from the office of President Taneti Maamau but they did not provide a response that had been promised.

A staffer in the President’s office told the ABC that there was no obligation under the law to make the report public, and that it was “playing politics” to blame the Government for the tragedy.

In 2009, when Anote Tong was president, the Uean te Raoi II ferry capsized between Tarawa and Maiana, claiming the lives of 35 people.

A commission of inquiry report was completed then, but the government did not publish the findings.

Many of the passengers on board the MV Butiraoi were school children, who had been described as Nonuti island’s “youngest and brightest”.

One of them, Philip, was the nephew of Brisbane-based Wanita Limpus, a co-founder of the Kiribati Australia Association.

“I’m hoping that out of all that investigation they finally worked out what was the cause of it,” Limpus told Pacific Beat, adding it would be a comfort for her sister to know what happened to her son.

“Especially when I think that my nephew is only 15 years old, his life hasn’t really started, he’s still a child.”

Limpus said she was not blaming the Government for the accident, but that she wanted answers “so those people are not dying in vain,” and urged the Government to be transparent.

In February, the Government told the ABC it did not want foreign journalists in the country to report on the disaster, and said ABC journalist Liam Fox would not be able to interview anyone about the ferry if he came to cover the story.

It came shortly after New Zealand journalist Michael Morrah and his cameraman had their passports taken off them while already in the country to speak to survivors.

Freelance journalist Joshua McDonald applied for a visa to Kiribati to report on a story about mental health, but was knocked back last month, with an official saying “we cannot consider it at this time”.

“I got pretty sick of it, it seemed like they were just trying anything they could to stop me from going, so I just gave up,” he said.

The New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission sent officials to assist the ferry investigation, but said the final report was a matter for the Kiribati Government.

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