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Police charge Solomon Islands opposition figure over riots

HONIARA (AFP) – Police in the restive Solomon Islands on Tuesday (Dec 14) charged a leading member of the opposition over deadly riots that rocked the country last month, as allies called the move politically motivated.

United Party president John Kwaita was arrested by armed police at his home late Monday and charged with holding an unlawful public assembly, in breach of emergency Covid-19 rules.

“Police have released the suspect on bail,” a police spokesman told AFP, adding the suspect “will appear before Honiara Central Magistrate (in) February of 2022”.

Late last month, anti-government protests sparked widespread looting and arson in the capital Honiara, causing US$67 million (S$92 million) worth of damage and leaving the city’s Chinatown district in ruins.

At least three people died in the violence, which also caused the snap deployment of around 200 peacekeepers from Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

The protests were sparked by opposition to veteran Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who is keen to forge closer ties with Beijing.

His rule is opposed by the leaders of Malaita – the Solomons’ most populous island – who want more independence and favour ties with Taiwan.

Kwaita is from Malaita and his United Party’s two Members of Parliament had backed a failed vote of no confidence against Mr Sogavare earlier this month.

One of those MPs, Mr Peter Kenilorea, told AFP late on Tuesday that he was pleased his ally had been released from custody but insisted the arrest had been “heavy handed”.

“There is this inescapable feeling I still have that these charges are politically motivated,” he said, adding that Kwaita would fight the charges and “uphold his innocence”.

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