Allegations of sexual offending on a NZ-backed aid project in the Pacific have led to Interpol looking into concerns about several other people, while the accused man has failed to appear for trial.

Interpol has been contacted over allegations of sexual offending on a New Zealand-funded aid project in Vanuatu, after investigations uncovered three other “persons of interest” – including a New Zealand citizen.

The man who was the subject of the original allegations is now on the run from authorities after he was allowed to return to his home in the Solomon Islands.

In March, Newsroom revealed that our foreign affairs officials had been forced to review New Zealand aid projects after the allegations, levelled against a Solomon Islands national working with the local Vanuatu partner of a Kiwi NGO.

Correspondence and briefings obtained under the Official Information Act show that several other people of concern were identified, including a New Zealand citizen and Australian citizen who may have been involved in the exploitation of children and vulnerable adults.

In a November 2018 report on the incident, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) was told that three other “persons of interest” had been identified through the accused’s Facebook Messenger chats, including a New Zealander living in Port Vila and an Australian who had been “arranging meetings with young men” in the country.

Information about those two people had been shared with the Vanuatu Police Force’s transnational crime unit, as well as the Australian Federal Police and New Zealand Police.

The other person of interest was a staff member of another NGO based in the Solomon Islands, who had been involved in “inappropriate conversations” with the accused.

While no criminal behaviour had been uncovered, that staff member’s contract was terminated due to the “grossly inappropriate” conversations given the sector he worked in.

An MFAT spokesperson said the ministry was unaware of any connection between the New Zealander and the Australian, and any New Zealand Aid Programme initiatives.

A spokeswoman for NZ Police refused to comment on what action, if any, police here had taken after the information was passed on, referring Newsroom to Vanuatu police.

Vanuatu Police Force acting deputy director Donald James said there was no information on the Australian and the New Zealander in the country’s police information management system, while the AFP has been approached for comment but had not responded at the time of publication.

Accused ‘absconds’ from country

The documents also show how the accused man was allowed by Vanuatu officials to leave the country, despite having no means to ensure his return.

In December 2018, MFAT was informed that the accused had been allowed to go back to the Solomon Islands on compassionate grounds (later confirmed to be a family bereavement) but was required to return to Vanuatu by January 2019 for a Supreme Court hearing.

However, the Supreme Court was later pushed back until March 2019, and the NGO told MFAT it was unclear whether the accused had returned to Vanuatu, or whether police could enforce his return.

In April, MFAT was told that the man had failed to return as per his bail conditions, and had also been applying for work in the Solomon Islands with a falsified CV.

Vanuatu’s public prosecutor Josaia Naigulevu told Newsroom the accused man had been granted bail in the magistrate’s court on the island of Tanna, but had “absconded” shortly after being committed for trial in the Supreme Court in November 2018.

Naigulevu said his office had been granted an arrest warrant when the accused failed to show at his first Supreme Court appearance in June, but he had not yet been found.

“If he does re-enter the jurisdiction, he is likely to be arrested. It is an ‘open’ warrant.”

However, the charges the man was facing – three counts of indecent assault – were “non-extraditable offences”, meaning he could not be forcibly returned from the Solomon Islands.

The MFAT spokesperson said there was still no evidence that the accused man had been involved in any similar incidents on other New Zealand-funded aid projects.

NGOs must be ‘extra vigilant’

While the ministry did not name the Vanuatu organisation which employed the accused staffer, Newsroom has learned it was a local partner of faith-based New Zealand charity Tearfund.

Tearfund chief executive Ian McInnes told Newsroom the organisation was “deeply disappointed” that the alleged offending had taken place, and had acted quickly once it learned of the allegations.

“Nobody wants this to happen in their aid programme, and yet I am content that both the partner and the authorities moved in the first instance as swiftly as was possible.”

The charity had sent a former police detective from New Zealand to Vanuatu where he worked in cooperation with the country’s police and the local NGO partner.

McInnes said none of the three persons of interest were connected to Tearfund, while the allegations were an isolated case in the charity’s work across the Pacific.

While police vetting of the accused had come back clean, McInnes said the incident was a reminder for NGOs to be “extra vigilant on recruitment”.

“We’re clear with our international partners what the obligations are. Can we expect no incidents? No, but what we can expect is how swiftly and thoroughly they’re addressed, and any lessons learned from them.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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