Fraud case divides PNG police force

8:41 am on 19 April 2016

A glaring division has opened up in Papua New Guinea's police force amid fallout over a major fraud case implicating the prime minister.

The head of the police anti-corruption unit, Mathew Damaru, and several members of his team have been suspended by the police commissioner following several high-profile arrests.

Matthew Damaru, PNG

Suspended Fraud Squad head Mathew Damaru is at odds with Police Commissioner Gary Baki. Photo: Supplied

The fraud squad's investigation hit obstacles right from the time it sought to arrest the prime minister, Peter O'Neill, in relation to his role in the payments worth about 30 million US dollars.

But for two years Mr O'Neill has managed to halt the investigation and stave off arrest through legal challenges.

However a Supreme Court decision two weeks ago to allow the probe to continue was soon followed by the arrests of the prime minister's lawyer, the attorney-general and a Supreme Court judge.

Just when it seemed that they were zeroing in on the prime minister, the Police Commissioner Gary Baki suspended the fraud squad officers, accusing them of insubordination and other breaches.

"Damaru and his team's modus operandi was to do investigations covertly and run to the courts to obtain arrest warrants in direct contradiction to set police practice and procedures as well as ruling of the Supreme Court," said Mr Baki.

PNG police on patrol

A division has emerged in PNG's police force. Photo: AFP

The commissioner accused the fraud squad officers of trying to frustrate and prevent him from exercising his powers as Commissioner of Police to supervise the force.

"As Commissioner of Police I was not given any brief by Damaru and his team since assuming office in June 2015 although I had requested Damaru to provide a list and detailed brief of all major investigations currently in court as well as investigations pending."

However, a former PNG chief justice, Sir Arnold Amet believed Mr Baki's reasoning for the suspension was flawed.

Fraud squad officers, Sir Arnold explained, were mandated by the constitution to continue their investigations without needing the Commissioner's approval in every instance of their investigation.

"This commissioner has been appointed by this prime minister and they are trying to corrupt the process," Sir Arnold concluded. "These fraud squad officers, they have gone to court and the court has continually upheld their responsibility and due process."

no caption

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

Peter O'Neill has denied any wrongdoing in the fraud case, relating to massive payments lawfirm, Paraka Lawyers, and has not offered himself for questioning.

Characterising the investigation as being politically-motivated, the prime minister issued a statement warning against a "vigilante style of police operation in the country".

"I am not going to allow the office of the prime minister to be demeaned, questioned when they are false allegations, where there is no evidence of financial benefit or corrupt practices that has given anybody any financial benefit."

He cautioned against setting "a very bad precedence for this country where for future Prime Ministers, anybody, any policemen will or can go and get a warrant on anything and simply arrest the Prime Minister."

Case under pressure

The former Police Commissioner Geoffrey Vaki was last year convicted of perverting the course of justice in relation to the fraud case.

Vaki's replacement as commissioner was Gary Baki who, shortly after his appointment, tried unsuccessfully to derail the investigation.

With this in mind, the political commentator and activist Martyn Namorong said it was understandable that the fraud squad would be wary of informing the commissioner of impending high profile arrests.

"The fraud squad operated in an environment where their work has been undermined by politicians, current and former police commissioners, their own colleagues," he said.

"And it is within such an environment where they feel that they cannot just divulge information about progress in their investigations, in my view."

Mr Namorong saw that a clear division had emerged within the police force.

"Obviously it's related to political interference the police force. So that is the current reality unfortunately where one arm of the police wants to arrest and the other wants to prevent arrests from taking place. So it's a really weird situation in PNG. But then, most situations are weird in PNG anyway."

Papua New Guinea opposition leader and Kandep MP Don Polye.

Papua New Guinea opposition leader and Kandep MP Don Polye. Photo: Papua New Guinea opposition

Meanwhile, the opposition leader Don Polye called for the police commissioner to stop victimizing his officers and let the investigation into Peter O'Neill take it course.

"It is now game over and the prime minister must submit to the rule of law, which he had been evading for the last three years."

Judiciary

The arrest of the judge Bernard Sakora last week surprised many Papua New Guineans, as the judiciary has long been regarded as the most robust of the country's democratic institutions.

Justice Sakora was charged with accepting a payment from a lawyer linked to the law firm at the centre of this whole fraud case. He has subsequently stood aside from his position while his court case is on foot.

Sir Arnold saw the judiciary as being able to withstand the scandal, although he agreed that it had been under threat since the O'Neill led government was first formed.

"Going back to 2011, when in my opinion they staged a constitutional coup and took over government, and have continued to test the resilience of the judiciary."

He said he was still confident in the country's judiciary.

"And of course there are individuals who are no different to any individuals, whether you be a prime minister or a senior judge. But institutions that we have inherited and adopted are resilient," said Sir Arnold. "It just requires honest leaders with integrity."

The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court.

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

While Gary Baki has installed other police officers to lead the fraud squad, he said Mathew Damaru and his suspended colleagues would not be stopped from attending to the cases they are pursing in the court.

"In fact I will provide them with all logistical and administrative support they require," said the commissioner. "It is their duty as police officers to ensure that they turn up in court to prosecute their cases."

However concern is growing about the division in the police.

The Governor of Oro province, Gary Juffa, said the division in the force was developing into a dangerous stand-off.

"A population grows anxious and restless," he said. "The justice system must move and move with as much haste as practicable. Failure to do so will lead to certain anarchy."

No caption

Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

A former prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta, described the pressure on the fraud case as "political interference of the worst sort".

"It has added to the cloud of oppression and intimidation that hangs over Papua New Guineans, heightened by physical violence and threats of physical violence."

Papua New Guineans, Sir Mekere said, expect the Fraud Squad officers to be reinstated immediately and be allowed to get on with the job.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs