PRIME Minister Peter O’Neill has written to the student bodies at the heart of protests against him, issuing a passionate defence of his position.
Students at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) and the PNG University of Technology (UniTech) have been protesting since the beginning of May, with students having openly boycotted classes and burnt newspapers as part of their protest action.
They are calling for Mr O’Neill to step aside from his role as Prime Minister to face questioning by the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate, after it was re-opened in early May.
The Directorate has secured a warrant to arrest Mr O’Neill over his alleged role in about $30 million in payments made to Paraka Lawyers – payments that are allegedly fraudulent.
That warrant is being challenged in PNG courts, with Mr O’Neill having labelled it “of questionable political intent” and “a clear miscarriage in the administration of law” in his letter to the students.
Mr O’Neill said it was important for him to outline some background information, noting it would be improper for him to debate the issue given that the matter was still in court.
He said that Paraka Lawyers had been paid since 2002, when they were first engaged by the Somare Government, adding that none of these were found fraudulent.
“It does not make any sense at all,” he wrote.
“Why [am] I and others are being charged, when Paul Paraka Lawyers have not been prosecuted by the Police to establish that there was fraud? Is this the logical thing to do? Or is there another ulterior motive behind this?”
“If evidence is produced today by the Police or Taskforce Sweep that I have received any benefit from Paul Paraka Lawyers, I will voluntarily step aside,” Mr O’Neill wrote.
Mr O’Neill later backed this up by telling the students he had “no intention of either stepping aside or resigning from the Office of the Prime Minister.”
“The people that have the legal mandate to remove a Prime Minister from office are the national Parliament or the people at the general election,” he said.
“I was mandated by the people in 2012 and duly elected by Members of Parliament, and I intend to uphold and respect their mandate until [the] 2017 general election.”
While Mr O’Neill closed his letter with the hope that students would return to their classes on receipt of the letter, protests were continuing as PNG Resources went to press.
The Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) quoted Student Representative Council president Kenneth Rapa as saying that Mr O’Neill stepping down from office was their chief demand.
“What we are talking about is the office he is occupying and not the cases that are before the courts,” he told the ABC.Earlier, chief secretary to the government Isaac Lupari warned that some of the activists involved in protests were not students but agitators aiming to cause a civil disturbance.
“These agitators devote their lives to stirring the public up for the highest bidder, and now they are trying to hijack student protests,” Mr Lupari said.
“These people are subject to the laws of our country and if they are found to be inciting people to commit acts that are illegal, they will be arrested and prosecuted by law.”