PNG Prime Minister stands firm amid political meltdown
Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill stands firm while a major political storm engulfing his office casts uncertainty over his future.
Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill is standing firm despite a major political storm which has engulfed his office this week, casting uncertainty over his future.
This follows police attempts to arrest Mr O'Neill over his alleged role in illegal payments made to a law firm.
The arrest warrant stemmed from an extensive probe by PNG's anti-corruption agency, Taskforce Sweep, which Mr O'Neill has this week disbanded amid a series of rapid dismissals.
Johnny Blades looks at the political fallout:
Events can move quickly within a week in Port Moresby. It was a sign of the turmoil to come when the Police Commissioner Tom Kulunga was handed a jail sentence late last week for contempt of court. Within days he was forced to retire by cabinet which appointed a new acting police chief, Geoffrey Vaki, as Peter O'Neill scrambled to fend off police attempts to question him regarding the Paraka Lawyers scandal. Taskforce Sweep's chairman Sam Koim says their findings that Peter O'Neill had allegedly approved of the fraudulent payment of 30 million US dollars in state funds to Paraka Lawyers related to just the latest in a long-running scam involving numerous players.
SAM KOIM: The payments were done over a period of seven years, without even doing any work at all for some purported outstanding bills rendered in 2006. They continued to receive payments from 2006 onwards up to the latest in May 2013 for doing absolutely nothing. And even after the Finance commission of inquiry was established and the findings were made, the fraud did not stop, it continued imperceptibly through structured and layered payment schemes. And the issues were brought to light and the payments continued on the PM's directive... a total amount of eighty million kina.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly denied the allegations against him, saying his signature had been forged, although Sam Koim says new forensic evidence disproves this claim. But, holed up in parliament house where he is protected by privilege, Peter O'Neill refused to go in for police questioning. As the Enga Governor Peter Ipatas explains, the government is upset about the way police sought to arrest the Prime Minister.
PETER IPATAS: We have a hard-working Prime Minister, and for the first time we have someone who is trying to deliver for this country. And when you look at the way the Prime Minister of a nation has been treated as if he's a common criminal by police - the police, an agency of government going out to get a warrant before actually having the Prime Minister invited for questioning or anything - that is uncalled for.
Meanwhile, the appointment of acting police commissioner Geoffrey Vaki sparked disquiet among senior ranks of the force. Mr Vaki was soon arrested by the head of police operations, Simon Kauba, on a charge of perverting the course of justice in regard to the court case over Mr O'Neill's arrest warrant. Subsequently, the cabinet stood down Simon Kauba. This, in addition to Mr O'Neill sacking the Attorney General Kerenga Kua. Mr Kua has appealed for calm by decision makers.
KERENGA KUA: Rather than for people to escalate the chaos by making maybe reckless decisions. So we need to slow it down. Let us slow down the process of suspensions and termination of important people within the executive arms of government, from the police force and various departments.
Peter O'Neill then moved to disband Taskforce Sweep, saying police will take over all investigations that have been handled by the country's premier anti-corruption investigative team. He told a press conference that the unit has become heavily politically influenced.
PETER O'NEILL: There have been constant visits by politicians to this office. Meetings have been going on through this office to try and influence the investigations that are going through there. It has been brought to our attention that there's been constant leaks of investigations currently going on through the media which has enabled us to take this action today.
Sam Koim says he is not surprised by Mr O'Neill's response.
SAM KOIM: And now they're firing back at us and saying all manner of things, even accusing us of being politically compromised. It's just a joke, you know. We are not that cheap. Our honour, integrity and professional diligence cannot be traded, and we deny everything outright.
There have been indications that public protests are being planned amid frustration that Mr O'Neill appears to placing himself beyond reproach. The former Prime Minister and member of the coalition government, Sir Michael Somare says Peter O'Neill should step aside to allow the legal case around his alleged role in a corruption case to take its course. Sir Michael says that he and other former Prime Ministers who have had to face the law while in the role have stepped aside or stood down.
SIR MICHAEL SOMARE: Similar goes to anyone who is the leader now. Prime Minister O'Neill should adhere to the law. He is the Prime Minister, he holds the highest office in the land. Now questions are over his head. He should clear those questions before he comes back to the office.
Sam Koim has vowed to continue probing high-level corruption in PNG. He says the Paraka scam is massive and as well as the numerous suspects who have already been arrested and charged in relation to it, there are plenty more. Meanwhile, Peter O'Neill says the government will continue to axe anyone who undermines its work. His coalition partners are largely standing by him for now. Next week it may be a different story.
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