At least some of those criminals had convictions for serious assault, and one, for manslaughter. These criminals were given police letters stating that they had no convictions, thereby enabling them to apply for work, study and residency visas in Australia and New Zealand. Australia's Immigration Department has found 18 such Tongans holding Australian visas, so far three have been cancelled. Deportations have not been ruled out. Four Tongans whose criminal records were wiped have already been forced to leave New Zealand. Another 48 are being investigated. In Tonga, an inquiry into the officers allegedly involved is expected to be finalized within a month.
Presenter: Dominique Schwartz
Grant O'Fee. Tongan Police commissioner
SCHWARTZ: In the decade until 2011, senior officers within the Tongan police force effectively cleared the criminal slate of 172 Tongan nationals. These criminals were given police letters stating that they had no convictions - thereby enabling them to apply for work, study and residency visas in countries including Australia and New Zealand.
Australia's Immigration Department has found 18 such Tongans holding Australian visas - so far three have been cancelled. Deportations have not been ruled out. Four Tongans whose criminal records were wiped have already been forced to leave New Zealand. Another 48 are being investigated.
In Tonga, an inquiry into the officers allegedly involved is expected to be finalised within a month. The country's Police commissioner Grant O'Fee says 15 officers are under the microscope. Some had already retired. But as many as six officers are still serving.
O'FEE: There's a couple who signed off quite a few, in one case over 30 allegedly, and so we're concerned about that and we're looking at those officers pretty closely.
SCHWARTZ: What crimes were written off?
O'FEE: The most serious ones that were written off was for manslaughter, there have been some grievous bodily harm. I mean we're talking about top-end very serious criminal offending here, which is to say the least of grave concern.
SCHWARTZ: And have you got any indication so far during your inquiry that this was in exchange for money, that officers did this to get a kickback?
O'FEE: I've not been able to establish that yet, obviously that's a big part of our inquiry and we're still looking at that. But we have no evidence to suggest that money changed hands at this stage.
SCHWARTZ: So how was it that this climate evolved where police officers offered to write clearance letters stating that people with convictions did not have convictions?
O'FEE: We do not have in Tonga, in the kingdom, there's no clean-slate legislation so-called as there is New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom. And I don't know but one of the previous ministers of police with possibly quite good intentions, the gentleman has since passed away, authorised senior officers of police to wipe the convictions of Tongan folk who were wishing to emigrate. Now it seems to me that it's a reasonable possibility that he was trying to give young people who had made a mistake another chance to emigrate, and to have their records cleared for minor offences. There was no policy written down, it just became accepted that that's what you could do. Now quite clearly when you do that you're sending a signed document off to another country and it's very damaging to our reputation that we're effectively telling lies to another sovereign state. So it is most concerning but I'm very conscious to look at it through the climate that prevailed at the time.
SCHWARTZ: Commissioner O'Fee says he will consider what disciplinary action is appropriate once the inquiry by the solicitor general is complete. He says he's confident measures have been put into place to prevent any repeat of the problem.
Immigration officials in Australia and New Zealand are not being specific about the crimes committed by Tongans who hold their countries' visas. They say they will look at each individual on a case by case basis in determining if Tongans are allowed to keep their visas.