Tongan police have charged three people, including New Zealander John Jonesse, with manslaughter in the death of one of 74 passengers who died last year in a ferry sinking that was one of the tiny South Pacific country's worst disasters.
Police Commander Chris Kelley said on Friday that a charge of sending an unseaworthy ship to sea had also been laid against ferry operator Shipping Corp of Polynesia.
The manslaughter charges - against corporation managing director Jonesse, ferry captain Makahokovalu Tuputupu and first mate Viliami Tu'ipulotu - relate to the death of one passenger. Other charges may be laid later concerning the deaths of the other passengers, Kelley said.
Manslaughter in Tonga carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison. The charge of sending an unseaworthy ship to sea carries a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment for those found responsible, including company officials and a ship's senior crew, and possible fines.
The ferry Princess Ashika sank Aug. 5 with 128 people on board after overturning in stormy seas about 86km northeast of the capital, Nuku'alofa. Fifty-four people survived.
Only two of the victims' bodies were recovered because the hull was in water too deep for conventional divers to reach it.
Captain Tuputupu has been on bail since earlier this month after being charged with taking a ship to sea while knowing it was unseaworthy. It was not immediately clear if Tuputupu would be rearrested on the new charges. Managing director Jonesse is also free on bail on fraud charges related to the purchase of the ferry. Neither were immediately available for comment.
At hearings for a semi-judicial government-called inquiry into the disaster, Tuputupu said he knew the ship was in poor condition, but sailed anyway because he felt he could not disobey company orders. Jonesse has said he had no idea the ship was unseaworthy before the disaster.
"At this point police investigations have sufficient evidence in respect of the Shipping Corporation and operational management of the Princess Ashika," Kelley told a news conference Friday.
"The sending and taking of an unseaworthy ship to sea relates to those directly involved in daily operations and includes the operator, the Shipping Corporation."
Kelley said the charge of manslaughter by negligence referred to the death of 21-year-old mother Vae Fetu'u Taufa, the only Tongan passenger whose body was recovered after the sinking. Scottish-born Daniel McMillan's body was the only other one retrieved.
Kelley said the police investigation is separate from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the sinking, which is due to report April 1.
The Princess Ashika was carrying cars and passengers from Nuku'alofa to outlying northern islands when it sank. The disaster has reduced one of the main ferry services in the country that relies on boats for transporting people and cargo among its 169 islands. Australia and New Zealand announced this month they would pay for a replacement for the Princess Ashika.