US bans entry for 2 Marshall Islands politicians

Stephen Wright
US bans entry for 2 Marshall Islands politicians This Sept. 28, 2007 photo shows Kessai Note, then president of the Republic of Marshall Islands, addressing the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Stephen Chernin/AP

The United States has imposed travel bans on two leaders from its Marshall Islands ally who, the State Department said, had accepted bribes as part of a scheme to set up a semi-autonomous region in the Pacific island country.

Kessai Note, a former president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and its current transport and communications minister, and Sen. Mike Halferty are barred from entering the United States, the State Department said on Dec. 11 in announcing travel sanctions against 30 officials worldwide alleged to be tainted by graft. The entry ban also applies to the immediate family members of Note and Halferty.

The statement said there was credible information that the two men had been involved in “significant corruption” that involved the abuse of their public offices.  

“Note and Halferty accepted bribes in the form of services and cash, in exchange for their legislative support of a bill in the RMI legislature to create a semi-autonomous region in the RMI,” the statement said.

A Chinese pair with Marshall Islands passports, Cary Yan and Gina Zhou, who tried to create the semi-autonomous region with no tax and relaxed immigration rules were extradited from Thailand last year and pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to conspiring to bribe officials. Yan was sentenced in May this year to 42 months in prison and Zhou, in February, to 31 months. 

The indictment said their efforts between 2016 and 2020 to establish the semi-autonomous region involved bribing and attempting to bribe half a dozen officials in the Marshall Islands.

The office of the Marshall Islands president didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the travel bans.

Note, who was president from 2000 to 2008, said Wednesday that “the whole thing is predicated on false accusations” and declined further comment, according to the Marshall Islands Journal.

The Marshall Islands is one of three nations in the militarily strategic Western Pacific that give the U.S. defense forces access to their vast ocean territories in exchange for funding and the right for their citizens to live and work in the U.S. under agreements known as compacts of free association. 

The Marshall Islands, Palau and Federated States of Micronesia signed new economic assistance agreements with the United States earlier this year, that significantly boosts support over a 20-year period, as the U.S. tries to reinforce its alliances with those countries in response to Beijing’s inroads in the Pacific.

Yan and Zhou’s failed attempt to get legislation passed in 2018 in support of the Rongelap Atoll Special Administrative Region was opposed by the Marshall Islands president at that time, Hilda Heine, according to the U.S. indictment.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in May that the pair had unsuccessfully tried to oust Heine after she opposed the legislation. They succeeded in getting a resolution passed in parliament in 2020 endorsing the concept of the special administrative region when Heine was no longer president.


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