Police Commissioner Albert Nalpini has been placed under suspension, but we don’t know why.
There is every indication that the proper processes were followed. And no one is suggesting that there was malice or even a hidden agenda behind the decision to suspend Mr Nalpini.
But the decision to suspend the top law enforcement officer in the country is a big deal. He works for the people of Vanuatu, and so do the members of the Police Services Commission who are investigating him.
The public needs to know what is happening, and why.
Everyone knows the Vanuatu Police Force has a chequered history. In 2012, things got so heated that accusations of mutiny were thrown around. A number of people were threatened, and the confusion lasted years. It was these events that ultimately led to Joe Natuman’s well-intentioned but illegal instruction to stop this childish nonsense.
And it was a court case arising from this that finally established the authority of the Police Service Commission to suspend a commissioner while they investigate him for breaches of discipline.
The process requires that the Commission advise the Head of State after consultation with the Minister —in this case, Internal Affairs Minister Andrew Napuat—of the investigation and of the need for him to be suspended. For legal reasons, it’s the President who actually performs the suspension. That’s because it’s the President who appointed him in the first place.
There is every indication that Mr Nalpini’s suspension has followed this exact process.
We know what happened. Now we need to know why.
There may be valid reasons to leave some details out. We don’t want people to assume he’s guilty while the investigation is still proceeding. We don’t want to cause unrest. We don’t want to make things worse within the ranks. We don’t want to leave ourselves open to a court challenge.
These are reasons to be careful. They are not excuses to refuse to say anything at all. The public’s right to know weighs against silence. The Right To Information Act clearly states that all government information is public unless there’s a compelling reason to protect it.
Albert Nalpini is the man who enforces the laws of Vanuatu. He is subject to the same laws as everyone else. And he has to be seen to be subject to it, too. No special treatment, no shortcuts.
If someone is charged with a crime, their name and the charges against them are released to the public. They have to be, because charging people and trying them in secret is against everything we stand for in a free country.
In rare cases, a person’s name is not released. This is to protect the victim, not the accused. In very very rare cases, national security requires that the entire case be conducted in secret. But even in these extreme cases, there are normally oversight processes.
But to suspend our top cop and then claim ‘administrative reasons’? That’s not good enough.
The Police Act, which was cited in the suspension letter, allows for the suspension of a senior officer while an investigation is undertaken concerning a disciplinary offence. So yes, there is an administrative reason for suspending him.
But what is the offence?
It’s an important question. Disciplinary offences include being absent from duty, committing a breach of confidence, corruption, damaging your uniform or police equipment, discreditable conduct, drunkenness on duty, lying, insubordination, faking illness, negligence, improper conduct, abuse of authority, or even uncleanliness or incivility.
Any one of these might or might not be grounds for suspension. Being absent from duty might be no big deal. It might be a very big deal. That depends on the absence, and on the duty.
This suspension might be no big deal. Or it might be a very big deal. The people of Vanuatu have a right to know which it is. We don’t need the gory details, but we do have a right to ask why Albert Nalpini is not sitting at his desk right now.
And the Police Service Commission, the Minister and the President—all of whom serve the people of Vanuatu—have a duty to explain what just happened.