New Caledonia activist says he is 'political prisoner' in France

CCAT spokesman Christian Tein said he was a 'political prisoner' (Delphine MAYEUR)
CCAT spokesman Christian Tein said he was a 'political prisoner' (Delphine MAYEUR)

An indigenous Kanak pro-independence activist from the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia said Monday that he considered himself a "political prisoner" as authorities held him in jail in mainland France pending charges over a wave of deadly rioting.

Christophe Tein, 56, is leader of the CCAT pro-independence group, accused by Paris of orchestrating the weeks of unrest. The group's members deny the accusation.

Tein spoke to two French Green party senators who visited him in isolation in jail in the northeastern French city of Mulhouse, in an exchange witnessed by AFP.

"I am a political prisoner and the first one to have been extradited in this way along with my comrades," he said.

"I have been able to speak on the phone with my lawyer in Noumea but it is difficult because of the time difference. I have to make contact with a lawyer here," he added.

Tein was one of seven pro-independence activists transferred to mainland France on July 23 from the territory, nearly 17,000 kilometres (10,600 miles) from Paris.

The move sparked a resurgence of rioting in New Caledonia.

Authorities have placed Tein under judicial investigation on suspicion of colluding in attempted murder and other charges.

The wave of rioting and looting erupted in New Caledonia in mid-May over a proposed electoral reform.

Kanak people fear the plan would leave them in a permanent minority compared with French from the mainland, putting independence hopes out of reach.

The violence has left nine dead and more than 1,500 people have been arrested, according to the High Commission that represents the French state in the territory.

Monday's visit was supervised by authorities and Tein was not permitted to discuss his role in the unrest.

But he said that "At some point we will have to sit down to resume discussions. The survival of New Caledonia depends on it."

The CCAT on Monday demanded the "immediate release and return" of the detained activists so they can be tried in New Caledonia, accusing French authorities of "colonial tactics".

France's Human Rights League said in a statement the activists' detention on the faraway mainland was "a serious infringement of their right to private and family life".