21 Aug 2013

Some relief in PNG as arrest made over Rabaul Queen sinking

4:57 pm on 21 August 2013

The owner of the Rabaul Queen ferry which sank off Papua New Guinea's Morobe coast 18 months ago is facing 162 counts of manslaughter.

Peter Sharp, an Australian expat, was arrested by police on Tuesday before charges were laid, including for criminal negligence and taking an unseaworthy ship to sea.

Don Wiseman spoke to Bridget Tunnicliffe who has been following the story.

DON WISEMAN: Bridget, this arrest has been a long time coming for the families who lost loved ones.

BRIDGET TUNNICLIFFE: Yes, the news of Peter Sharp's arrest has been greeted with some relief in Papua New Guinea. The police launched their investigation earlier this year, but we hadn't heard anything for a few months and it looked like things were stalling. There was growing frustration among families of the victims at the apparent lack of action. Last year there was a Commission of Inquiry which found the ferry was unseaworthy, overloaded and should not have been sailing. It said Peter Sharp showed gross disrespect by having passengers travel in inhumane conditions. But no arrests came directly out of that and it was under some public pressure that the police set up their own investigation in February this year. The ferry sinking claimed at least 141 lives, many of them from Bougainville, but the exact death toll is still not known because the ship's manifest was unreliable.

DON WISEMAN: Now he was arrested in Kokopo in East New Britain.

BRIDGET TUNNICLIFFE: Yes, he was arrested at the headquarters of Rabaul Shipping yesterday, based in Kokopo, East New Britain, where the company continues to run vessels from. He spent last night in a jail cell. He was to briefly appear in the Kokopo District Court for the charges to be read out and it's expected quite a crowd of locals could gather there.The police will be given a couple of months to pull their files together and will present their case to the Committal Court - where a decision will be made about whether the case should proceed to the High Court or if there is not sufficient evidence, the matter could be struck out at that stage. But the police seem quite confident about the case they have built and say the investigation took as long as it did because they needed to be meticulous.

DON WISEMAN: Has Peter Sharp ever acknowledged that he may have played a part in this tragedy?

BRIDGET TUNNICLIFFE: No. To date, Peter Sharp has denied any responsibility for the disaster and has maintained the Rabaul Queen was safe. When Mr Sharp was questioned during the Commission of Inquiry he maintained that the sinking was an act of God. He even made allegations that witnesses were bribed, to appear and give evidence before the inquiry.

DON WISEMAN: What are we hearing about whether there'll be any further arrests?

BRIDGET TUNNICLIFFE: Our correspondent in PNG says the police have said anybody found to have acted in a criminal way leading up to the sinking, will be arrested and charged. It's expected that the captain of the ship will be questioned, along with three other government officials who belong to the Maritime Safety Authority based in Rabaul. Also some crew members could be questioned. We are also told that in Papua New Guinea a manslaughter sentence carries a 5-to-10 year prison term.