Tonga 'wiped' visa applicants' criminal records

Last updated 11:59 15/02/2013

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New Zealand officials are "extremely concerned" at revelations Tongan police "wiped" the criminal records of 33 people so that they could get NZ visas.

Tongan police faked letters to New Zealand immigration authorities for an unknown number of people saying they had clean criminal records even when they had convictions for serious crime, including manslaughter, Tongan Police Commissioner Grant O'Fee said today.

He said they have identified 33 people who were given letters declaring they had no criminal records when it was known they did.

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) Pacific regional manager Alan Barry says they are "extremely concerned" at what may have happened in Tonga.

"The New Zealand Government is working with the Tongan authorities to get the details of any Tongans who might have come to New Zealand as a result of cleansed police records."

He said INZ would place alerts on its immigration systems for any Tongan national who was in New Zealand as a result of having their record wiped inappropriately.

"Any individual who is found to have entered New Zealand illegally by not declaring their criminal convictions or by providing misleading information to an immigration officer will be liable for deportation and could face a lengthy ban from ever returning."

Once they had details from Tonga INZ would take immediate steps to locate any individual that they believed has entered New Zealand illegally.

O'Fee said he had "no doubt" that there are more than 33 occurrances.

He said a previous Tongan police minister, now dead, had approved the practice which took place between 2005 and 2008.

O'Fee said the original records held by the Tongan courts and police were intact and each had to be searched manually.

O'Fee, who is a former senior New Zealand police officer, said they were providing Australian, New Zealand and United States authorities with the names of known criminals who had received letters of clean records.

"We are doing everything we can do to cooperate with the authorities in New Zealand and Australia."

O'Fee said they were making an assumption that the letters were written for immigration but some could have been written to support job applications.

Police have yet to find duplicates of all the letters but he noted some were marked "FIP" - "for immigration purposes".

O'Fee's predecessor in the post, Dunedin police officer Chris Kelley had put a stop to the writing of letters when he discovered it but had not been aware of the extent of it.

O'Fee said he discovered the scale in December.

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He said he had no idea why the police minister - who was, in those days, effectively the commissioner as well - had approved the writing of false letters.

"It is difficult to grasp what has happened."

He had no doubt that the letters were written deliberately.

"It was not just bureaucratic oversight or error in clerical work."

Solicitor General 'Aminiasi Kefu was leading the investigation which implicated senior Tongan police officers.

O'Fee would not rule out criminal charges or disciplinary measures against police officers.

"I am moving very cautiously in a very measured way on this..... I am anxious to try have a measured response to this."

- Stuff

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