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Samoa's parliamentary opposition accused the government in 2004 of stealing millions of dollars from the town of Salelologa by paying too little for its land.
Germany controlled this group of Pacific Islands, formerly known as Western Samoa, between 1899 and World War I. New Zealand occupied and subsequently administered the islands under a League of Nations mandate and then as a UN Trust Territory until Western Samoa became independent in 1962. In 1988, the country changed its name to Samoa.
The centrist Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has dominated politics since independence. Tofilau Eti Alesana, who became prime minister in 1982, resigned in 1998 for health reasons. He was replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegoai, who led the HRPP to another victory in March 2001 by winning 30 of the 49 parliamentary seats.
In August 2003, the number of government departments and ministries was reduced from 27 to 14, mainly through mergers and appointments of new executive heads, in order to streamline the government. The government also announced increased police efforts to battle growing youth crime, particularly drug use and violence.
Samoa decided to forego $150,000 in annual military aid from the United States when it refused to sign a bilateral treaty with Washington by a July 2003 deadline. The treaty would have granted exemptions from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to U.S. citizens, who are alleged to have committed an international offense and currently live in Samoa.
In July 2004, the parliamentary opposition accused the government of stealing millions of dollars from the town of Salelologa by paying too little - $1.4 million - for nearly 3,000 acres. An opposition leader said that an independent valuation put the price at more than $15 million. Three of the seven villages of Salelologa took the Minister of Lands, Survey, and Environment to court. The villagers claimed their traditional chiefs did not have authority to sign over their land for that price; the Supreme Court ruled the land agreement signed was legally binding. This decision sparked another public debate on whether new laws are needed to constrain the powers of traditional chiefs.
A cyclone hit the island early in the year, imposing an extra burden on a struggling economy that depends heavily on foreign aid and remittances from more than 100,000 Samoans working overseas.
Samoans can change their government democratically. Previously, only the matai (family chiefs) could vote. Executive authority is vested in the Chief of State. The 90-year-old Chief Susuga Malietoa Tanumafili II holds this title for life; the Legislative Assembly will elect his successor for five-year terms. The Chief of State appoints the prime minister, who heads the government and names his own cabinet. All laws passed by the 49-member unicameral legislature must receive approval from the Chief of State to take effect. Although candidates are free to propose themselves for electoral office, approval of the matai is essential. Two parliament seats are reserved for "at large" voters, that is, Samoans of mixed European-Samoan and Chinese-Samoan heritage.
Official corruption and abuses do not appear as widespread or serious as in some other Pacific Island states. Nevertheless, there have been allegations of corruption over the years.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and the press. One of the two television stations is operated by the government. Five private radio stations and satellite cable television are available in parts of the capital. Three English-language and several Samoan newspapers are available. Journalists are legally required to reveal their sources in the event of a defamation suit against them, but this law has not been tested in court. In 2004, publishers, journalists, and civil society groups called on the government to abolish the Printers and Publishers Act of 1982 and the Law of Criminal Libel. Critics charge that these laws impose on the public legal fees incurred by government leaders, who are frequently intolerant of news reports about them. There are several Internet service providers, and Internet use is growing rapidly.
The government respects freedom of religion in practice, and relations among religious groups are generally amicable. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1990 Village Fono (Council of Chiefs) Act, which gives legal recognition to fono decisions, could not be used to infringe upon villagers' freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and association. This ruling followed a fono decision in the village of Saluilua to banish members of a Bible study group, which the fono regarded as illegal. Similar rulings followed in 2003 and 2004. The government established, in 2003, the Law Reform Commissioner to address conflicts between traditional customs and Christianity. There were no reports of restrictions on academic freedom.
Freedom of assembly and association is respected in practice. Human rights groups operate freely. About 20 percent of wage earners belong to trade unions. Workers have the legal right to bargain collectively, but they rarely pursue this option. Government workers can strike, subject to certain conditions to assure public safety. More than 60 percent of adults work in subsistence agriculture.
The judiciary is independent and upholds the right to a fair trial. The Supreme Court is the highest court with full jurisdiction on civil, criminal, and constitutional matters. The Chief of State, on the recommendation of the prime minister, appoints the chief justice. Prisons meet basic international standards. Human rights groups have not reported problems such as lengthy detentions before trial or corruption of the courts in adjudicating cases.
Samoa has no armed forces, and the small police force is under civilian control. The police have little impact in the villages, where most disputes are settled by the fono, and punishments usually involve fines in cash or kind. Banishment from the village is reserved for serious offenses. Fono vary considerably in their decision-making styles and in the number of matai involved. Abuses by some fono officials have caused the public to question the legitimacy of their actions and limits of their authority.
The constitution prohibits discrimination, but there are problems in the treatment of women and non-matai. Excesses of traditional chiefs, or fono, were brought to light and curbed in a landmark court ruling in 2003 that found the banishment of villagers by the fono for their religious practices was illegal.
The government generally respects freedom of movement. A new permanent resident permit was introduced in 2004 as part of the Immigration Act of 2004. The Cabinet is required to determine annually eligibility and residency requirements for the granting of permanent resident permits. The Cabinet decided to provide 10 permanent resident permits, two of which were for applicants outside of Samoa as part of the government's effort to attract foreign investments.
Domestic violence against women and children is common, and spousal rape is not illegal. Domestic abuses typically go unreported because of social pressure and fear of reprisal. In October, 17 women graduated in a new class of 49 police officers, and a woman was named the top student.