A former Solomon Islands police officer who lived as a fugitive for almost 13 years before being arrested to stand trial for the 2003 murder of former police commissioner Sir Fred Soaki has been found not guilty.
In a potentially explosive judgement in the Solomon Islands High Court this morning, Justice John Brown said he had no choice but to acquit Edmond Sae following a combination of inconsistent eyewitness reports, suggestions of witness collusion and a lack of evidence during the long-awaited trial, which has been ongoing since February.
But Sae, who was recaptured in his home village in the Malatian highlands in 2015 after almost 13 years on the run, did not walk out of court a free man, with Justice Brown sentencing him to 20 years jail for the manslaughter of prisoner Saeni Orea at the Auki Police Station in 2003.
This killing, and today’s conviction, came after Sae escaped police custody in Honiara in April 2003 after being charged for the murder of Sir Soaki. The court found he traveled back to Auki and, armed with a machine gun, pelted the Auki Police Station with bullets, killing Saeni Orea in the process.
Although Sae’s defence team argued he had no intention of killing anyone during the “dramatic political statement” with Mr Orea being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Justice Brown disagreed, calling it a “military assault”. He also labelled it an “act of treason” against an institution of the Solomon Islands resulting in the death of an innocent bystander.
Wearing a red polo shirt in front of a packed gallery inside the High Court, Sae’s eyes darted across the room as the the 20-year sentence was read out, and was in deep discussion with his defense team after court adjourned.
Outside court, where there was a large police presence, Sir Soaki’s son William, now Deputy Secretary of Solomon Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, said they would contemplate the decision and make a statement as a family at a later date.
Almost 15 years since the murder, the scars of the event are still raw. The court was closed for the trial as witnesses said they feared for their safety after testifying.
Sae, who at the time was 35-years-old, was accused of entering the Auki Motel on February 10, 2003 – his face covered by a scarf – walking up to Sir Soaki and shooting him at point blank range, execution style.
There were three other people in the room at the time of the killing, however SIBC Online has decided to leave their names out – and the other witnesses mentioned – to respect their request for safety.
One witness in the room who saw the fatal shot later told police, and the court during the trial, that he was positive the shooter was Sae. However another man in the room at the time of the killing said the accused shooter had his face covered by the scarf so he could not be identified.
The aforementioned man’s testimony was hence dismissed by Justice Brown
Another witnesses who said she saw Mr Sae after the shooting was deemed an unreliable witness. As was another eyewitness who said she also spotted the accused running away from the motel after his covering, or scarf, fell off when it was caught by a tree branch.
Justice Brown found multiple inconsistencies in the timing of those two eyewitness reports, and though he said some elements were plausible, other elements left him with no choice but to dismiss their evidence.
He singled out the four police officers who were reportedly drinking with Sae before the murder. They said they heard him announce he was planning to kill Sir Soaki and accompanied him up the road before the shooting. However Justice Brown said although he accepted, more than 14 years after the event, that memories would be hazy, he said their evidence was “contradictory in many material respects”.
“I do not propose to individually touch on these inconsistencies but the aggregate effect is to leave me with the conclusion that their later evidence had been contrived to effect but they failed to convince me of their veracity,” he said.
Sae had already served two years and four weeks in custody after being recaptured in his home village in 2015.
In between Sae was reported to have been involved in a 2007 plot with an Australian Vietnam veteran Bill Johnson to assassinate current Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, through the backing of the Australian Government.
However these claims were never substantiated and were later thrown out of court.
The question now for the Solomon Islands Police, Sir Soaki’s family and the country as a whole is: who killed Sir Soaki?