Thursday, September 30, 2004

Sex trials against Pitcairn men begin

Thu Sep 30, 3:41 AM ET

By SUE INGRAM, For The Associated Press

PITCAIRN ISLAND - A series of sex abuse trials opened on Pitcairn Island, the isolated British territory in the Pacific that is home to descendants of the 18th-century Bounty mutineers. The first alleged victim said she was raped as a young girl by the island's mayor.

The unprecedented trials of seven men — more than half the island's adult male population — on 55 charges began on Wednesday in the island's community hall, which has been converted into courts staffed by judges and lawyers from New Zealand but operating under British law.

Some of the island's 47 permanent residents accuse Britain of using the case, involving abuse allegations dating back up to 40 years, to depopulate Pitcairn. British authorities have denied that and said they are pumping millions of dollars into the island to improve life there.

There are only 12 adult men among the population and those who are young and fit enough must crew a longboat to get essential supplies from passing freight and cruise ships. The island has no port, airstrip or paved roads.

Convictions for the seven men, who are to be tried separately in two court rooms, could make it virtually impossible to man the boat, islanders claim.
Prosecutors called their highest profile defendant first — island mayor Steve Christian. He faces six charges of rape and four of indecent assault on four women from 1964-75.
Christian, 53, pleaded innocent to the charges.

Public prosecutor Simon Moore alleged that Christian committed the offenses when he was between 13 and 24 years old. In testimony given via a video link between the island and northern New Zealand city of Auckland, more than 3,100 miles away, the first prosecution witness described how as a young girl of 11 or 12 years she was taunted on the island for being a "half-caste" and that she had been targeted and raped by Christian on 4 occasions.

The cases appear certain to draw new attention to the sexual habits of the tiny community that ekes out an existence on the rocky volcanic island midway between New Zealand and Peru.

Dea Birkett, a British journalist whose 1997 book "Serpent in Paradise" described her several months' living on the island, has written: "Starved of real choices, Pitcairners develop relationships considered unacceptable elsewhere. Sisters share a husband. Teenage girls have affairs with older men. Women have children by more than one partner, often starting as young as 15."

Later Wednesday the cases of two other men were expected to open — Len Brown, the oldest defendant at 78, and his son, Dave. Len Brown faces two charges of raping one woman, and his son faces 15 charges relating to five women. These charges date to 1969.

The cases are expected to last six weeks and the defendants could be sentenced to lengthy prison terms if convicted. Investigations into the sex attacks were launched in 1999 when an islander told a visiting British policewoman she had been sexually abused.

On Tuesday, a group of women residents on the island came to the defense of the seven accused men, claiming the cases had been blown out of proportion and that the victims may have been coerced into testifying. Speaking to reporters on the island, some of the women said underage sex was normal in the community.

Island resident Carol Warren told New Zealand television on Wednesday that as far as she knew, "There's never been a rape on the island." She added that she had sex at age 12, but added, "I went in fully knowing what I was doing and I wasn't forced."

At earlier hearings, suspects' lawyers argued the inhabitants of Pitcairn long ago severed their ties with Britain by burning the boat that carried them to their isolated island after the Bounty mutiny. That argument was rejected.
In January 1790, five months after setting Capt. William Bligh and 18 of his crew adrift in an open boat, the Bounty mutineers landed on Pitcairn Island.

Their leader, Fletcher Christian, exploited some sloppy map making to set up a hide-out on an island they knew was located in the wrong place on British admiralty charts.

More than 20 years earlier, British sailors had spotted the island but incorrectly charted it 188 nautical miles West of its true location, according to a history of the island published on the Web site of the Pitcairn Islands Study Center.
The mutineers choice of Pitcairn was an inspired one that led to the establishment of one of the world's most isolated communities. On Jan. 23, 1790, the Bounty caught fire and sank, stranding the mutineers.

Sue Ingram is a Radio New Zealand correspondent who is also covering the Pitcairn trials for The Associated Press.

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