PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
SCANDALS IMPACT TUVALU'S MARCH ELECTIONS
By Michael J. Field
AUCKLAND, New Zealand (January 27, 1998 - Agence France-Presse)---Illicit sex and Italian money scandals have hit one of the world's smallest democracies as candidates slug it out in Tuvalu's bitter general election.
Nine tiny Polynesian atolls, home to around 10,500 people north of Fiji, will vote on March 26. Ten days later a new 12-seat Parliament meets to elect a Prime Minister.
Prime Minister Bikenibeu Paeniu is fighting allegations he sexually assaulted a youth while he has accused his predecessor, Kamuta Latasi, of taking money from an Italian businessman.
Paeniu comes from Nukulaelae, 300 voters, where in 1993 he defeated one time Finance Minister Henry Naisali.
During that campaign, Paeniu was accused of sexually assaulting a youth and, while a complaint was laid with police, nothing came of it.
"The matter has been investigated by the police. They were all political plots and it has been closed," Paeniu said in a telephone interview.
But the issue has come back with vengeance and it is being widely debated.
During Parliament's final session late last year (which at one point saw a fist-fight break out) Latasi challenged Paeniu to say he was not homosexual.
"I told him I did not mind what he did with his own personal body or what, but being a leader with these rumors floating around, he had to clear his name," Latasi said in a telephone interview.
"He refuses and says the only person who knows the truth is God. So I say that unfortunately I cannot contact God."
Paeniu says Nukulaelae voters will return him unopposed.
"Despite all these allegations and political plots and all that kind of thing, it did not affect my political career at all," Paeniu said.
Acknowledging the issue had come up again he said politicians, including Naisali, had "blackened politics."
"He tried very hard on the sexual allegations and raised it in my island community to try and run me down. Nothing happened. It was really dirty politics."
Tuvalu makes a major part of its government revenue by allowing sex line telephone services ("Talk as dirty as you dare with girls at home.") to use its 688 phone code.
Thanks to Italian restaurant owner Giovanni Di Loreto Tuvalu's foreign affairs are also an issue.
Naisali has a document which shows Di Loreto promised 1.5 million Australian dollars to construct a "boarding school for students from the outer islands" in return for Tuvalu making him Honorary Consul to Italy and Germany.
Naisali suggests the money and the arrangement is of some benefit to Paeniu, but the Prime Minister says it was the work of Latasi.
"I have completely closed contacts with (Di Loreto)," Paeniu said.
Paeniu said that in December 1996 Latasi met Di Loreto in Rome and on his return "deposited a huge amount of money in the ANZ Bank in Suva."
Latasi's says Paeniu opened negotiations with the Italian, who handed over a first installment of 15,000 Australian dollars in cash during Paeniu's first term.
"That money --when I became Prime Minister I had to dig out-- and when I found it, it was locked in his safe in his office."
It is now in the state owned National Bank of Tuvalu and, with other installments, has reached 56,000 Australian dollars.
Di Loreto, who describes himself as "a totally insignificant businessman, in the food business," says he has tried to help Tuvalu's people.
In an e-mail, he said he provided an incubator for the local hospital and sent a container of canned meat, canned vegetables, exercise books for school children, fabrics and toys.
"This container is being held up by the current government, allegedly for a mistake in the delivering address."
He says he did not give money for political purposes.
"I did give occasionally some donations to government officials with firm and clear instructions to be used to improve - be it only a little bit - the people's conditions."
He added: "I did lend (and not give), at some point, an amount of money to Mr. Latasi on a personal basis, which he meticulously paid back to me to the last cent." Di Loreto says there is a document with his signature on it.
"(But) is was addressed to the current Prime Minister. As the meaning of this document was ambiguous and the signature was unilateral, I immediately revoked this document by a fax after consulting my lawyer."
He said he wanted to create a European foundation for Tuvalu and wanted to be named Honorary Consul "to upgrade the performance of the foundation to help the people."
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