Pōhiva to sue government – 7000 Tongan passports sold in 1990s

MP ‘Akilisi Pohiva, Leader of the Tongan Parliament’s Opposition Party, vowed he will again take the Tongan government to court.

He said a legal action will be filed against the government because it issued Tongan passports to Chinese citizens without going through the legal process.

Applicants are required by law to hold a naturalisation certificate before obtaining a passport.

Pohiva said he found evidence that Chinese nationals who were issued with Tongan passports in 2001 to 2012 do not hold any naturalisation certificate.

Recently Pohiva declared two Chinese couples acquired 15 passports without holding any naturalisation certificates.

This week his newspaper listed another 12 Chinese with numbers of their Tongan passports saying they do not hold Tongan naturalisation certificates.

Concerns built up within the opposition party after Tonga government agreed with China last year for a visa-free access deal to allow their diplomatic officials to obtain free visas without going through the normal procedure. But the free visa package gave the Chinese who would come to Tonga more benefits by allowing them to obtain three Tongan passports including official, service and diplomatic passports.

The opposition said they fear the visa free deal would ostensbly re-open the passport scandals in 1990s given that this form of  government Tonga has does not have the balance of power, a mechanism that upholds accountablity and transparency.

The Prime Minister’s Office could not be reached for comment but the Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Samiu Vaipulu said in Parliament the visa free deal with China was to facilitate Chinese diplomats and officials who come to Tonga for certain purposes. He said that includes those who were contracted to construct the St George Palace in Nuku'alofa, a Chinese funded project set to begin in 2014.

Tonga's constitution says, "any foreigner after he has resided in the Kingdom for the space of five years or more may with the consent of the King take the oath of allegiance and he may be granted Letters of Naturalization and all naturalized subjects shall have the same rights and privileges as native born subjects of Tonga with the exception that they shall not be entitled to the rights of hereditary tax allotments".

Pohiva filed a lawsuit against the government in 1989 but decided not to pursue the matter in court after the government hold an emergency parliamentary session in 1991 to amend the constitution. The amendment was made to legalise the illegal selling of the passports to Asians in 1980s.

Seven Thousand passports sold

Since the amendment of the constitution in 1991 to legalise selling of the Tongan passport the government decided to terminate it in 1999. The Police Minister at the time, Hon Clive Edwards told  Radio New Zealand  the Government of Tonga collected nearly $40 million by selling passports to Asians before it was stopped in December that year.

Edwards said 7,000 passports were sold before the project ended.  The proceeds from the sale were deposited to “provide the Government with foreign reserves to back the economy”.

He said he understood the people raised concerns that Asians especially Chinese “might migrate to Tonga” after buying the Tongan passports.

But he claimed “fewer than 200 of the Chinese who originally came to the Kingdom under the passport project currently remain in Tonga. More than half departed, he said, after spending just a few months in" the Kingdom.

Today Hon. Edwards is one of the government’s ministers. It would be interesting if he  could come out and explain to the people what Tonga now has experienced since the passport project, a ministry under his control was responsible for in 1999.

The money lost

The sale of the Tongan passports can be traced back to 1980s when the king approved a Hong Kong businessman, George Chen, to sell Tongan citizenship and special passports.

The Asians were targeted in the passport project because the Hong Kong Chinese during that period were worried about Hong Kong’s handover to China.

The king decided the money needed to be invested overseas saying if it was deposited in Tonga “the government would only spend it on roads”.

The money was then invested in the Bank of America. An employee in the bank known as Mr Jesse Bogdonoff after spotting Tonga’s millions deposit project flew to Tonga and persuaded the king to allow him to invest it.

In an attempt to obtain an official position in the Tongan government to help him recognised by the American investors, the king issued a royal decree declaring  Bogdonoff as his Court Jester.

Bogdonoff then invested the money in what they described as a mysterious company. In 2001 the government admitted the US$26 million dollars collected from selling of the Tongan passports to Asians plus additional $11 million estimated to be accrued interest disappeared.

Two cabinet ministers who were trustees of the investment scheme since the beginning were accused of negligence and not taking enough care to make sure the money was securely invested. They  were Hon Tutoatasi Fakafanua and Hon Tevita Tupou. The duo were forced to quit their ministerial positions.

Tonga Government sued Mr Bogdonoff in an American court but settled out of court in February 2004 for about £530,000 and equivalent of about US$1 million dollars, “…closing an affair that made the country the laughing stock of the Pacific”.

Pohiva welcomes the loss

At the time Pohiva publicly told the people the money was meant to be lost. He described the millions of US dollars obtained from the illegal selling of the Tongan passports as dirty money. And that dirty money is not good for a nation and people who deemed themselves Christians, Pohiva said.

Just last week two Chinese citizens arrested after police found they came to Tonga on fake passports.

The Tongan law says if a person is found to have breached the passport law he could be made to pay up to TOP$50,000 or imprisoned no more than 10 years.

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