AN Australian Vietnam veteran has been charged with a plot to assassinate controversial Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare for a $50,000 bounty allegedly sponsored by Australia.
Police are still hunting for the four alleged co-conspirators of Mr Johnson, described by sources within the expatriate Australian community as a "happy drunk" who frequented the Honiara Yacht Club when he was visiting the capital from the nearby island of Malaita.
The arrest comes amid a simmering brawl between the Solomons Government and Canberra over Mr Sogavare's plans to form an armed police "close personal protection unit". All Solomons police were disarmed in 2003, following the arrival of the Australian-led intervention force to restore peace after years of ethnic-motivated violence. Some of the armed police were found to have been involved in the ethnic violence that tore the country apart.
In December, the Australian-dominated unit of police protecting Mr Sogavare were withdrawn at his request. Mr Johnson was yesterday charged with conspiracy to murder Mr Sogavare on January 18 and 23 for "a reward bounty payment of $50,000 sponsored by Australia". A Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman last night said he could not comment on the allegations of Australian involvement in sponsoring the alleged assassination plot.
Sources said prosecutors will allege that Mr Johnson initially approached an inspector in the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force for assistance in executing the plot to kill Mr Sogavare, who took power soon after the April riots that razed much of Chinatown in Honiara. Mr Johnson allegedly thought the senior officer was an opponent of Mr Sogavare and would be able to ensure armed killers could pass through the checkpoints set up around the parliament and offices of the Prime Minister.
The plotters are alleged to have planned their conspiracy in the mountains of Malaita, a hotbed of past ethnic violence. The police inspector is understood to have informed Mr Sogavare's office and an investigation launched. A statement was last night released by Mr Sogavare's office detailing the charging and appearance in court of "Bill Johnson" in Honiara. "The man is alleged to have made statements to police that he, in company with other people not named in court, had made plans to assassinate the Prime Minister," the statement said.
Magistrate William Seneka remanded Mr Johnson in custody till next Tuesday when the court will hear an application for bail. Mr Seneka denied bail because of the serious nature of the alleged offences and fears that Mr Johnson might abscond or interfere with further investigations.
The Australian consulate organised legal representation for Mr Johnson, as well as diabetes medication. At the time of his arrest, Mr Johnson was staying in a budget motel in Honiara. He appears on the nominal roll of Vietnam veterans as having served in four units in Vietnam - the 2nd, 5th and 8th battalions, Royal Australian Regiment as well as at Headquarters, 1st Australian Taskforce.
Mr Sogavare's office could not be contacted last night. DFAT issued a statement last night detailing the assistance given to Mr Johnson after his arrest. "The Australian consul in Honiara has been providing consular assistance to the man and attended the court hearing on January 30," she said.