Kiribati suspends appeals court judges

·2-min read

The Kiribati government has suspended three retired New Zealand judges sitting on its court of appeal, a New Zealand official says, worsening a constitutional crisis that has plagued the Pacific nation for months.

A spokeswoman for New Zealand's foreign ministry said in an e-mail to Reuters the government understood the three judges had been suspended by the president of Kiribati and the matter referred to a tribunal.

The Kiribati government did not respond to a request for comment but late last month, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau's office published a statement on its Facebook page that said it was "gravely concerned by the continuing attack on the rule of law by a few judges who refuse to honour the constitution, laws and customs."

The suspension of the judges follows that of Chief Justice William Hastings as well as Justice David Lambourne earlier this year and leaves the country with no high court or appeals court judges.

Kiribati, a nation of 120,000 people, is a republic made up of 32 atolls and one remote coral island in Micronesia.

The three appeals court judges - Rodney Hansen, Peter Blanchard and Paul Heath - had recently ruled against the Kiribati government's decision to remove Lambourne, a high court judge, from his post and deport him.

The appeal judges had found in favour of Lambourne, who is married to the leader of Kiribati's opposition party, and said he should remain a judge and that he could not be deported to Australia, where he was born.

Chief Justice Hastings, whose role was in part funded by the New Zealand International Development Cooperation Program, had also previously ruled in favour of Lambourne.

Hansen and Heath would not comment on the case. Blanchard could not be reached and Hasting's lawyer would not comment.