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New Caledonia pro-independence leader transferred to France to await trial

Smoke rises during protests in Noumea, New Caledonia (Nicolas Job/AP)
Smoke rises during protests in Noumea, New Caledonia (Nicolas Job/AP)

A pro-independence leader in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia was transferred to a prison facility in mainland France to await trial on charges relating to two weeks of unrest in May that left nine people dead, the public prosecutor in the territory said.

Christian Tein, an Indigenous Kanak leader of the pro-independence party known as The Field Action Co-ordination Unit, was flown to mainland France overnight on Saturday along with six other activists, prosecutor Yves Dupas said in a statement.

The seven Kanak activists were transferred to pre-trial detention on “a specially chartered plane” because of “the sensitivity of the procedure”, Mr Dupas said.

New Caledonia
Two weeks of unrest in New Caledonia left nine people dead and significant destruction in the archipelago with decades of tensions between those seeking independence and those loyal to France (Ludovic Marin/AP)

Moving the detained activists into custody 17,000km (10,500 miles) away from their homeland would allow the investigation into their alleged wrongdoings to continue “in a calm manner and without any pressure,” he said.

The Kanak people have sought for decades to break free from France, which first took New Caledonia in 1853.

Violence flared on May 13 in response to attempts by French President Emmanuel Macron’s government to amend the French Constitution and change voting lists in New Caledonia.

France declared a state of emergency two days later, rushing hundreds of troop reinforcements to help police quell the revolt that included shootings, clashes, looting and arson.

The prosecutor did not name the other six detained activists who were transferred to mainland France.

Reports in French media suggested that the pro-independence group’s communications director, Brenda Wanabo, and Frederique Muliava, chief of staff to the president of New Caledonia’s Congress, are among them.

The violence led to nine deaths and widespread destruction of shops, businesses and homes.

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Violence flared after French President Emmanuel Macron’s government planned to change voting rights in New Caledonia, a plan that has since been suspended (Luca Bruno/AP)

On Wednesday, 11 Kanak activists were arrested in a broad police raid targeting the Field Action Co-ordination Unit. The detentions were part of an ongoing police investigation launched on May 17, just days after protests against the Paris-pushed voting reform turned violent.

On Saturday, the activists appeared in front of the investigative judge. They face a long list of charges, including complicity in attempted murder, organised theft with a weapon, organised destruction of private property while endangering people and participation in a criminal group with an intent to plan a crime.

In the past seven months, Tein’s Field Action Co-ordination Unit has organised major, peaceful marches in New Caledonia against the French authorities and the Paris-backed voting reform that Kanaks fear would further marginalise them.

With France now plunged into frenzied campaigning for snap parliamentary elections, French President Emmanuel Macron suspended the changes to voting rights in New Caledonia.

Tein and nine other pro-independence leaders were placed under house arrest when the violence started.

French Interior and Overseas Territories Minister Gerald Darmanin said last month that Tein’s party was a “small group which calls itself pro-independence, but instead commits looting, murder and violence”.

The National Council of Chiefs of the Indigenous Kanak people rejected allegations that the group was involved in the deadly violence.

Grand Chief Hippolyte Sinewami-Htamumu expressed full support for the pro-independence group, which has mobilised more than 100,000 people “of all ages and from all backgrounds” in peaceful protests in recent months in the capital, Noumea, and throughout the island.

Tein was among pro-independence leaders who met with Mr Macron during his whirlwind trip to New Caledonia last month to calm the unrest.

After the meeting, the Kanak leader appealed to protesters to “remain mobilised (and) maintain all (forms) of resistance” to achieve their main objective, which he said was, ”full independence”.

New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, Napoleon’s nephew and heir. It became an overseas territory after the Second World War, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.