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PNG's O'Neill defends judge suspension law

22:03 Sun Mar 25 2012
AAP

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has defended his government's controversial new powers to suspend judges.

The government last week rushed through parliament the Judicial Conduct Bill 2012, giving the legislature the power to suspend judges if they fail to meet a set of nine rules governing their conduct.

In a national address on Sunday, Mr O'Neill said the law was not draconian and would not erode the impartiality of judges, despite high-profile criticism from former prime minister Sir Michael Somare and sections of PNG's legal community.

"It is true a new law was made by parliament to give `legislative teeth' to administer any incidences of perceived or real bias, where judges continue to hear cases that have serious conflicts of interest," he said.

"This law was enacted for the sake of clarity and to better define and strengthen the role and conduct of our national and Supreme Court judges.

"Parliament has put into written law what was, until last Wednesday, a mere understanding and belief which we all took for granted that every judge on the national and Supreme Court is free of bias and prejudice."

Mr O'Neill also denied his eight-month-old government was having a fight with the judiciary.

Many are sceptical about the timing of the law.

On Friday several thousand students took to the streets of Port Moresby to demand its repeal.

Opposition Leader Dame Carol Kidu has condemned the bill and the rushed manner in which it was passed, while former chief justice and attorney-general Sir Arnold Amet has appealed for international intervention.

Sir Michael has added his voice to criticism of the law, saying in a statement he believes the government will now mount a campaign against electoral commissioner Andrew Trawen in an effort to stall the June 2012 election.

"These members of parliament have shown how they will wield power and the judiciary is only the beginning. I believe shortly they will turn their attention on the Office of the Electoral Commission."

However, in his speech, Mr O'Neill declared speculation of a deferred election nonsense.

"Our government is not in the business of trying to turn a proud Papua New Guinean nation into a Pacific `coconut republic'," he said.

"Elections this year will go ahead as scheduled with the issuing of election writs on April 27 - that's next month - and for polling to commence in June."

Fears of a suspended election were sparked when parliament raised the issue last month, with some MPs arguing a 12-month suspension would allow time for anti-fraud polling technology to be introduced.

Deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah publicly expressed his wish for the election to be deferred, and Speaker of the House Jeffery Nape took out a full-page advertisement in the National newspaper saying parliament had the right to suspend the election.

The PNG constitution allows for fixed five-year terms of parliament, Mr Trawen says.

During the 2011 constitutional battle over who was PNG's rightful prime minister, Sir Michael or Mr O'Neill, government lawyers tried several times to remove Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia from overseeing the trial.

After losing the case, the O'Neill government used its numerical superiority in parliament to pass a series of laws legalising its decision to dump Sir Michael on August 2.

With the legality of those laws now before the Supreme Court, the government has since tried and failed numerous times to suspend Sir Salamo, citing a 2009 complaint about his handling of a dead judge's estate.

Sir Salamo was arrested and charged with perverting the course of justice three weeks ago, but the court issued a permanent stay on the case, calling the police investigation an abuse of process.