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In 2005, a high chief and parliament member questioned whether there are too many village chiefs in Samoa. Government doctors went on strike in September to seek better work conditions and higher pay.
Germany controlled this group of Pacific Islands, formerly known as Western Samoa, between 1899 and World War I. New Zealand 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. A largely subsistence agricultural economy, the country depends heavily on remittances from more than 100,000 Samoans working overseas.
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. The main opposition party, the Democratic United Party, chose Valasi Tafito as its new leader after its former secretary Tofa S'a Atonio Lemi was killed by an assailant in Auckland in October 2005.
In 2005, political and public debates continued over the role and powers of village chiefs in Samoa. Matai, or village chiefs, control local government and churches through the village fono, or legislature, which is open only to them. While many serve their communities well in solving conflicts and providing leadership, there have been many cases of abuse of power in recent years. For example, families have been banished from villages and have had their homes burned down because they belonged to churches outside of those-such as the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, and the Congregational Christina Church of Samoa-recognized by the government.
Government doctors went on strike in September for better working conditions and higher pay. In early November, the government ordered the striking doctors to return to work. Those given government scholarships to study were threatened with legal action and barred from leaving the country. Of the 32 original striking doctors, only two returned to work, two left for Micronesia, and the rest resigned. In the end, the government acquiesced to the majority of the doctor's requests, but could not meet their demand to increase the salary for new doctors, arguing that it could not raise salaries for just one part of the civil service. The prolonged strike severely affected the delivery of health services in the island nation.
Samoans can change their government democratically. Pre-viously, only the matai 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-mem-ber 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. In 2003, the number of government ministries was reduced from 27 to 14 through mergers designed to streamline the government.
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. Samoa was not ranked in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and the press. The government operates one of the country's two television stations. Five private radio stations and satellite cable television are available in parts of the capital. There are three English-language and several Samoan newspapers. 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. They criticized the laws for imposing on the media 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 on 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 appointed the Law Reform Commission in 2003 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 over 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, corruption of the courts in adjudicating cases, or prisoner abuse.
Samoa has no armed forces, and the small police force is under civilian control. The country receives assistance from Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand to train its police and security personnel. 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, and abuses by some fono officials have caused the public to question the legitimacy of their actions.
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 reported to be on the rise. Spousal rape is not illegal. Domestic abuses typically go unreported because of social pressure and fear of reprisal. Women's rights advocates saw the addition of 17 female police officers in October 2004 as a step forward in improving police responsiveness to reports of rape and other violent acts against women and children.