A victory over corruption in PNG

by BAL KAMA

The fight against corruption in PNG reached a milestone last week when the PNG National Court sentenced Paul Tiensten, a former senior minister and current parliamentarian, to nine years imprisonment with hard labour for misappropriating A$4 million of public funds.

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Picture source: Echo PNG

A year short of the maximum ten years sentence (prior to the amendment), it was the most severe penalty any PNG court has ever given to a convicted corrupt public official since PNG’s Independence. In his judgment, Deputy Chief Justice Salika was adamant that ‘misappropriation of public funds by public officials in positions of trust is a serious crime.’

Tiensten was first elected to Parliament in 2002 and up until last week, he has been in political office for over a decade. Tiensten was regarded as one of the most senior ministers in Somare’s National Alliance government, successively holding ministries of Trade and Industry, Foreign Affairs, and National Planning. Tiensten was in the nucleus of Somare’s infamous ‘kitchen cabinet.’

No stranger to controversy, Tiensten, while serving as the Foreign Minister, was implicated in the Taiwanese diplomatic scandal, a charge he strongly denied. For this current case, Tiensten initially fled to Australia to avoid investigations, accusing the Task Force Sweep (TFS) of political ‘witch-hunt.’TFS is a multi-agency anti-corruption task force set up by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill as a policy response to corruption.

It was the most severe penalty any PNG court has ever given to a convicted corrupt public official since PNG’s independence. In his judgment, Deputy Chief Justice Salika was adamant that ‘misappropriation of public funds by public officials in positions of trust is a serious crime.’

Tiensten was first elected to parliament in 2002 and up until last week, he had been in political office for over a decade. Tiensten was regarded as one of the most senior ministers in Sir Michael Somare’s National Alliance government, successively holding ministries of Trade and Industry, Foreign Affairs, and National Planning. Tiensten was a member of Somare’s infamous ‘kitchen cabinet.’

No stranger to controversy, Tiensten, while serving as the foreign minister, was implicated in the Taiwanese diplomatic scandal, a charge he strongly denied. Tiensten initially fled to Australia to avoid investigation of the current case, accusing Task Force Sweep (TFS) of a political ‘witch-hunt.’ TFS is a multi-agency anti-corruption task force set up by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.

PNG’s corruption awakening?

Although doubts remain among many about the independence and legality of the Task Force Sweep, its ability to prosecute a case of such significance is laudable. For the anti-corruption movements in the country, Tiensten’s conviction is a victory. Further, the message from the Court was clear: ‘…unless drastic steps such as imposition of stiff penalties are taken against such persons, the ordinary people of this country will continue to be manipulated and…suffer at the hand of the very people they appointed or elected to assist them.’  Even Tiensten’s character references from former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and the Opposition Leader Belden Namah was not able to persuade the Court. 

Coincidentally, the Chief Justice launched the National Court Fraud and Corruption Track (NCFCT) on the same day of the judgment. NCFCT is designed to streamline court processes and fast-track corruption cases, thereby reducing the backlog of cases that often compromise important evidence. It seeks to address the concern ‘that the courts are not doing enough to expedite the conduct of criminal cases which are of public interest.’ Despite some recent criticisms, the judiciary should be commended for taking such a decisive step.

Picture source: Radio Australia

Picture source: Radio Australia

Emerging from the 2011 constitutional crisis, where it was seriously undermined, the PNG judiciary appears determined to reclaim its indispensable role of dispensing justice without fear or favour. The Tiensten conviction should lead to the reinstatement of public confidence in the judiciary and reassure international partners who have spent millions on PNG’s justice sector.

Many Papua New Guineans went on social media to express their thoughts. George T Kabayage, on the Facebook group PNG News, captured the historic significance of the case: ‘since I was born, this is my first to read this type of news…anti-corruption work at its best.’ For various anti-corruption organisations, including international partners, this could be the long awaited moment of awakening.

Implication for the future

PNG still maintains its place as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International. It is widely known that corruption is well entrenched and institutionalised in the highest echelons of PNG’s socio-political order.

Tiensten was sentenced to nine years but with the recent amendments to the Criminal Code, a similar transgressor could face up to fifty years or life imprisonment. One would hope that this grim prospect should ring alarm bells within the corridors of Waigani where many, engaging in the craft of systemic abuse and misappropriation, consider themselves invincible to the lengthy arm of justice. The courts appeared to be ready. The onus is now on the law enforcement and investigative agencies including the Ombudsmen Commission to respond to this awakening.

Bal Kama is a staff member at the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra and PhD Candidate with the ANU College of Law, Australian National University.

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