PITCAIRN ISLAND -- A series of sex abuse trials has opened on Pitcairn Island, the isolated British territory in the Pacific that is home to descendants of the 18th-century mutineers of the British ship HMS Bounty. The first alleged victim said she was raped as a young girl by the island's mayor.
The trials of seven men -- more than half the island's adult male population -- on 55 charges got underway Wednesday in the island's community hall, which has been converted into courtrooms staffed by judges and lawyers from New Zealand but operating under British law.
Pitcairn Island's mayor, Steve Christian
Some of the island's 47 permanent residents accuse Britain of using the case, which involves allegations dating back as far as 40 years, to depopulate Pitcairn. British authorities have denied that, saying they are pumping millions of dollars into the island to improve conditions there.
There are only 12 adult men in the population, and those who are young and fit enough must row a longboat out to passing freight and cruise ships to receive essential supplies. The island has no port, airstrip or paved roads.
Convictions for the seven men, who are to be tried separately in two courtrooms, would make it virtually impossible to man the boat, islanders say.
Prosecutors called their most prominent defendant first -- the island's mayor, Steve Christian. He faces six charges of rape and four of indecent assault on four women from 1964 to 1975. Christian, 53, pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The public prosecutor, Simon Moore, alleged that Christian committed the offenses when he was between 13 and 24 years old.
In testimony given via a video link between the island and Auckland, New Zealand, more than 3,100 miles away, the first prosecution witness described how, as a girl of 11 or 12, she had been taunted on the island as a "half-caste." She said she had been raped by Christian on four occasions.
The trials are predicted to last six weeks, and the defendants face lengthy prison terms if convicted.
Investigations into the attacks were launched in 1999 after an islander told a visiting British policewoman that she had been sexually abused.
On Tuesday, a group of female residents on the island spoke in defense of the seven accused men, saying that the cases had been blown out of proportion and that the victims may have been coerced into testifying.
Some of the women told reporters that underage sex was normal in the community.