Seven days is a long time in Papua New Guinea politics.
In the space of one week an investigation by the country’s anti-corruption taskforce has led to an arrest warrant served on the prime minister and then stayed, the sacking of both the attorney general and the deputy police commissioner, and the arrest of the police commissioner on his first day after replacing his predecessor who was convicted of contempt last Friday and then knighted. Then the taskforce was disbanded.
Amid calls for restraint from senior politicians and police, the prime minister, Peter O’Neill has threatened to “terminate” the position of anyone going against the government.
The most recent events are understood to have begun last Thursday, when then police commissioner Tom Kulunga signed off on an arrest warrant for O’Neill, in relation to a long-running investigation into illegal payments made by the government to a Port Moresby law firm.
O’Neill has long denied that he was involved in the alleged siphoning of about $30m to Paul Paraka Lawyers, but new evidence appearing to confirm the legitimacy of key documents, which were previously dismissed as fake, prompted Investigative Taskforce Sweep to call for his arrest.
However, the warrant was not acted on immediately.
On Friday, Kulunga was convicted of contempt of court for failing to reinstate suspended assistant police commissioner Geoffrey Vaki. Kulunga was sentenced to hard labour but released on bail on Saturday, pending appeal.
Saturday and Sunday
Over the weekend it was announced that Kalunga – as well as the judge who sentenced him – would be knighted for their services to law enforcement as part of the Queen’s birthday honours.
Kulunga’s arrest warrant for O’Neill was served on Monday, with a request from the assistant police commissioner (crimes), Thomas Eluh, for the prime minister to present to police for questioning. O’Neill’s legal team told Guardian Australia he was unable to make the appointments and had instead arranged to meet two days later, and it was suggested police officers had decided to make a spectacle.
Lawyers quickly acted to stay the warrant for arrest, and police later agreed to wait while the court case was heard in a week’s time.
That afternoon, Vaki was announced as Kulunga’s replacement, a decision the police unions described as highly suspicious.
Hours before a court battle for a stay on his arrest warrant on Tuesday, O’Neill sacked the attorney general, Kerenga Kua, reportedly for publicly disagreeing with some proposed constitutional amendments.
Kua urged restraint from all sides amid the increasingly hostile political and judicial developments, the Post Courier reported.
“Rather than for people to escalate the chaos by making maybe [a] reckless decision … we need to slow it down,” he said.
“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.”
Local media has since reported the new attorney general, Ano Pala, was under instruction to disband Investigative Taskforce Sweep, something the head of the taskforce, Sam Koim, said was true.
In court on Wednesday, it was revealed Pala and Vaki had appointed a new lawyer for police, and the new lawyer had been instructed to consent to O’Neill’s request for a stay on his arrest warrant, a reversal of the former police lawyer’s position.
Vaki was arrested for perverting the course of justice as a result, according to the Post Courier.
Deputy police commissioner Simon Kauba appealed for O’Neill to present himself for questioning.
“Why is the prime minister causing so much fear and anxiety for the people of PNG?” Kauba said. “No one is above the law and the prime minister must set a good example for the people and voluntarily come in and allow justice to take its natural course,”
O’Neill dismissed Kauba for “not complying with instructions”.
“We cannot continue to have policemen and women who are employees of government running around trying to undermine government decisions,” O’Neill told the national executive council.
O’Neill also vowed to terminate the position of “everybody who continues to undermine the work of the government”.
It is not clear whether the termination of Kauba was before or after Vaki was arrested.
Also on Wednesday, in perhaps the most significant action taken by the prime minister in response to the building corruption case against him, O’Neill declared that Investigative Taskforce Sweep was “heavily politicised and compromised” and had been colluding with politicians and the media, and disbanded the organisation which he himself set up in 2011 to investigation corruption, but which had now turned its sights on him.
In a press conference on Wednesday evening, O’Neill said that all taskforce staff would revert to their original roles and all files and investigations would be handed over to police.
Disbandment a ‘grave mistake’
Head of the taskforce, Sam Koim, told Guardian Australia he was not given any official confirmation of the decision, instead learning about it from local media.
He said in a statement the taskforce’s disbandment would be the government’s “gravest mistake” and it would not be a deterrent to the investigators.
“When you fight corruption, it fights back, and in the course of that when you get closer to the sun, you get burnt. It’s all anticipated,” he said.
“Whilst the authority that established ITFS reserves the right to disband it, it would be the gravest mistake a responsible government would make. So much is at stake and all the leaders should act responsibly.”