updated 9/29/2004 10:55:17 PM ET 2004-09-30T02:55:17

A group of women on this remote British territory on Tuesday defended seven men charged with sexual abuse, claiming the case has been blown out of proportion and that the alleged victims may have been coerced into testifying.

British prosecutors working on this Pacific island have charged seven men with a total of 55 sex crimes. The cases appear certain to lift the lid on the sexual habits of the community, which has fewer than 50 people.

Speaking to reporters on the island, some women said underage sex was normal in the community. Others suggested the prosecutors' witnesses were coerced.

"There's never been a rape on the island," one resident, Carol Warren, said on New Zealand television. "I was one of them, I had sex at 12. I went in fully knowing what I was doing and I wasn't forced."

The mayor of tiny Pitcairn Island — located midway between Peru and New Zealand and home to the descendants of the 18th-century Bounty mutineers — on Wednesday became the first to stand trial.

Steve Christian faces six charges of rape and four charges of indecent assault. The alleged assaults against four women occurred between 1964 and 1975, and his accusers were to testify via video from Auckland, New Zealand, more than 3,100 miles to the west.

A meager existence
The inhabitants of Pitcairn eke out an existence on the island, which has no port and no airstrip. Income is derived mainly from selling postage stamps to collectors and handicrafts to tourists on passing cruise ships.

Some islanders argue that if seven of their able-bodied men are imprisoned, no one will be able to row the longboats used to ferry supplies to and from passing ships.

Two other cases opened Wednesday. Len Brown, the oldest defendant at 78, faces two charges of raping one woman. His son, Dave, faces 15 charges relating to five women. The charges date to 1969.

The seven cases are expected to last six weeks and prosecutors will have two courtrooms operating simultaneously. The defendants could be sentenced to lengthy prison terms if convicted.

Investigations into attacks were launched in 1999, when an islander told a visiting British policewoman she had been sexually abused. Since then, new laws including a child protection act have been enacted and police and social workers have been sent to Pitcairn.

H.M.S. Bounty's descendants
The size and complexity of the case is unprecedented on Pitcairn Island, where descendants of the mutineers on the British navy ship H.M.S. Bounty arrived in 1790. The arrival of three judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and media members has almost doubled the island's population.

The defendants had a chance to head off trials at a pretrial hearing last week, but refused to plead guilty when offered the chance, a move that would have cut any sentence they may face.

At earlier hearings, defense lawyers argued the inhabitants of Pitcairn long ago severed their ties with Britain by burning the boat that carried them to their isolated island after the Bounty mutiny. That argument was rejected.

The Pitcairn Islands are a group of five rocky volcanic outcrops — only the largest of which is inhabited — with a combined area of 18 square miles.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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