PNG PM to keep fighting arrest warrant

1:59 pm on 10 August 2017

Papua New Guinea's prime minister Peter O'Neill has indicated he will appeal a National Court decision to uphold the legality of an arrest warrant issued for him in 2014.

The Court this week dismissed a challenge to the legality of the warrant obtained by anti-fraud police who have been investigating Mr O'Neill over alleged illegal state payments to a law firm.

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Peter O'Neill: "We have challenged our critics and opponents to provide any solid evidence" Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

Mr O'Neill said he respected that the court made its decision on outstanding legal matters relating to the Paraka Lawyers legal fees matter.

But he voiced disappointment with the ruling in light of what he described as "various inconsistencies with previous rulings and established precedents", indicating he would appeal in a higher court.

Earlier this week, Justice Collin Makail ruled that the challenge to the warrant, filed by the former police commissioner Geoffrey Vaki, was an abuse of court process. He said the criminal process was about fairness and must be heard in a reasonable time frame, alluding to the series of legal challenges which have prevented the arrest warrant being executed for three years.

After this week's court ruling, the head of the fraud squad, Mathew Damaru, explained that it was incumbent on the current police commissioner Gary Baki to have the arrest warrant executed. It was Mr Damaru, along with National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate colleague Timothy Gitua, who originally obtained the warrant.

"The case has been dragging on for three years. It's created a perception that he's guilty, that's what he's trying to suppress," said Mr Damaru, who said Mr O'Neill was assured of a fair hearing.

"If he's innocent, just come to the fraud squad office, present himself, and [the fraud squad will] have him processed, and then he can go to court and defend himself."

Today, two days after the ruling, Mr Baki released a statement saying he would examine the case with Victor Isouve, the Assistant Commissioner Crimes and Director Fraud, and his team. After this, Mr Baki said, he would "invite the Prime Minister to come in for the interview".

"This is not a requirement by law, he explained, "but an existing and established protocol the Constabulary has engaged over the years for leaders and high profile people."

However, Mr O'Neill's lawyers appear ready to try and ensure the matter remains tied up in court for the foreseeable future. The prime minister reiterated earlier claims that the arrest warrant is political attack without basis, blaming two of his political adversaries, Belden Namah and Don Polye for pursuing the matter.

Papua New Guinea MP for Vanimo-Green, Belden Namah.

Vanimo MP Belden Namah was a complainant in the police investigation which led to the granting of the arrest warrant in 2014. Photo: Alex Smith

"We will continue to challenge these issues because the initial complaint was politically motivated and has serious implications for the transparency of legal process in our country," said Mr O'Neill in a statement.

"We have seen this tactic time and time again with high profile cases, where charges were laid without evidence, then thrown out of court after a few months but in the meantime the reputational damage is done."

Political damage

Mr O'Neill's statement alluded to the political damage that the case around the arrest warrant, and the whole wider Paraka Lawyers payments scandal, has caused.

"Several cases have occurred against members of the legal fraternity were they were charged on dubious grounds and the cases then thrown out of court," he said, suggesting it was a ploy to cause maximum political fallout.

Mr O'Neill was referring to arrests made by the anti-fraud police early last year of his Attorney-General Ano Pala, who was ousted in the recent general election, and the supreme court judge Bernard Sakora. The charge of judicial corruption against the judge was related to a payment Mr Sakora received from a lawyer at the centre of the scandal surrounding payments to Paraka Lawyers.

The case against Justice Sakora was later dismissed on technical grounds. However just this week, reports are filtering through that the Ombudsman Commission has referred Justice Sakora to the Public Prosecutor over alleged misconduct in office.

Paul Paraka

Paul Paraka is the principal of the Paraka Lawyers firm at the centre of a string of alleged fraudulent state payments, some of which are detailed in a 2009 Commission of Inquiry report into the Finance Department. Photo: PNGExposed

It could be a sign that the wheels of justice are turning against Mr O'Neill who at this point would prefer to focus on the formation of his new government after being re-elected as prime minister at the start of PNG's tenth parliament last week.

"We are of the firm view that there is no evidence whatsoever ever to suggest that myself of members of our government benefitted personally from these transactions for legal fees and contracts that were awarded by the Somare government," he said.

"We have challenged our critics and opponents to provide any solid evidence, but no evidence or information has ever been provided to substantiate this issue of a warrant of arrest and we are challenging this matter in court."

But the anti-fraud police clearly do have evidence - this was why they secured an arrest warrant in the first place. The anti-fraud agents are reluctant to prejudice various cases around the Paraka payments by conducting a media trial. That's why they have been preserving the evidence for when the cases are brought to the court, as part of fair criminal proceedings. The problem is that these cases have been prevented from going to court due to myriad legal challenges.

Social media has once again been awash with calls for the prime minister's arrest. And the calls from various leaders for Mr O'Neill to face the law are also resurfacing. The drama is threatening to overshadow the rather fluid political situation in the immediate wake of PNG's long and troubled election.

Gary Baki is under mounting pressure to act on this arrest warrant. His statement indicated he is treading carefully on the matter, appealing to the prime minister via an invitation to come in for a police interview. Mr Damaru this week expressed doubts that Mr O'Neill would turn up for questioning voluntarily. If ever there was a time for Mr Baki to refute all those claims that his appointment as police commissioner was merely about protecting Mr O'Neill, it is now.

More likely, Mr O'Neill will take the initiative. He has painted himself as the protector of the office of prime minister and its integrity, describing it as his duty ensure the allegations are properly tested in court.

"It is important to stress that if we did not challenge this matter in court, a dangerous precedent would be set exposing future Prime Ministers and holders of high office to malicious and politically motivated false charges," he explained.

"We must establish a clear set of legal precedents so that this dangerous political tactic cannot be used again in the future as a means to attempt to undermine future governments."

The Supreme Court in Papua New Guinea.

The Supreme Court in Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZI/Johnny Blades

For the time being, the matter of the arrest warrant may be taken to the Supreme Court. But as last year's students protests displayed, the public is running out of patience on this issue of the prime minister's role in the payments. The political damage will probably only grow if the issue is not settled.