PNG fisherman held in Majuro on murder charge

A Papua New Guinea national is being held in jail in the Marshall Islands to face a murder charge after allegedly beating a Kiribati fisherman on board a fishing vessel in Majuro's lagoon last week.

The Marshall Islands Attorney General's office filed single counts of murder and manslaughter against Augustine Luvutul, 29, a fisherman onboard the purse seiner Ocean Expedition, a United States-flagged purse seiner.

The charges were filed in the High Court December 27.

The charges were filed by Assistant Attorney General Meuton Laiden four days after the December 23 death of Aaron Ionikara, a fisherman from Kiribati who worked on the same purse seiner as Mr Luvutul.

Mr Luvutul is being represented by Chief Public Defender Russell Kun.

At the initial appearance on Friday, Chief Justice Carl Ingram said the only way to ensure Mr Luvutul "will not flee or gravely endanger public safety" is to have him held at Majuro jail.

Chief Justice Ingram remanded the defendant for pre-trial detention pending disposition of the case.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for January 9 at which time the government must provide adequate evidence to convince the High Court there is "good cause" to proceed to trial.

The charges filed by Assistant Attorney General Laiden say Mr Luvutul "intentionally and recklessly caused the death of Aaron Ionikara, national of Kiribati, and a crew member on Ocean Expedition, who was completely helpless due to (being) heavily intoxicated."

The charges say that Augustine Luvutul punched the victim six times in the face and head, "causing Ionikara to fall from the vessel to the sea and died."

In the Marshall Islands legal system, murder carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in jail and/or a US$20,000 fine. Manslaughter carries a maximum jail term of 10 years and/or a US$20,000 fine.

The Ocean Expedition, like many purse seiners, uses Majuro as a trans-shipment hub for offloading its tuna catches to carriers vessels that transport the fish to canneries.

Majuro is the world's busiest tuna transshipment port, with over 400 trans-shipments annually each of the last three years.