Over one thousand civil society members from Wewak, East Sepik Province in Papua New Guinea, turned out on December 10 to support their wantoks across the border in a large and vibrant demonstration that brought the provincial capital to a standstill, local stringers from West Papua Media report.
The rally and festival, called to bring attention to human rights situation in neighbouring West Papua on International Human Rights Day, saw PNG government officials, security forces, church leaders and ordinary people march together calling on the PNG government to do more to stand up to Indonesia on the issue of West Papua, and for the sovereign rights of West Papua to be respected.
At around 9:00am the marchers gathered at Mongian Compound, about 500 metres from Wewak town market. A long-march started with less than hundred people but the numbers grew throughout the day. As the marchers approached Wewak town area around 10:00am,Wewak local time, the number had grown to one thousand people. The positive environment and support from the authorities and civil society motivated long-march organisers to do four laps around Wewak Town until midday.
One West Papuan observer told West Papua Media via phone conversation that the spontaneous support from the public was “amazing and unreal”. As further quoted “a lot of ordinary people and women who sell their food at Wewak town market left their goods and joined the march. They even donated money, food, drinks and various garden food to us (West Papuan asylum seekers).”
At around, 12:30pm, the streets of Wewak was covered with sea of people who called for basic human rights to be protected, but importantly echoing the aspirations of the sovereign right of West Papuan people, according to participants
The long-march finished at the new Police Station near Wewak Town Market, where various speakers addressed the crowd. Amongst the speakers were, Miss Sophie Mangai, President of Wewak Women’s Council, who led the long-march calling on those gathered to “lets all support our brothers and sisters from West Papua for their struggle for independence.”
“West Papuans are our brothers and sisters; we are one people; one ancestor; and one Melanesia in the Pacific. So we must drive out Indonesia from the land of West Papua,” said Miss Mangai.
Other Speakers included: Florence Parinjo (Wewak Women Council), Abraham Kareni, Jusuf Kambuaya and Daniel Waromi (West Papuan expatriates living in Wewak) and followed by other West Papuan asylum seekers.
PNG Media including NBC also covered the rally, interviewing many West Papuan and PNG people present.
According to rally organisers, the rally was fully endorsed by Sakien Sakawar (Police Border Commander), Mr. Francis Kemaken (Coordinator of Diocese of Caritas PNG/Oceania, and Patron of the Federated Republic of West Papua Branch-ESP Wewak PNG), 3. Miss Sophie Mangai (President of East Sepik Council of Women), and Jusuf Kambuaya (General Secretary, Federated Republic of West Papua Branch Office Wewak).
Informal festivities continued into the night, according to local sources.
Allegations of brutality, corruption, and a failure of the rule of law are being levelled at PNG Police and Customs officers in Wewak, East Sepik, after a small group of West Papuan refugees fleeing from Indonesian violence were subjected to an unauthorised operation and imprisoned on illegal charges.
Procedural failures, responsibility avoidance and accusations of financial exploitation of vulnerable and traumatised refugees have transformed a simple misunderstanding into a major miscarriage of justice. International legal obligations, basic human, refugee and legal rights have been systematically denied as law enforcement officials in Wewak scramble to avoid any personal or legal responsibility for the debacle.
A group of four West Papuan refugees, fleeing to Wewak after the violent crackdown by Indonesian security forces on the Third Papuan People’s Congress, were arrested, beaten and imprisoned by Papua New Guinea police and Customs officers on November 17. Police and Customs officers at the scene refused to hear claims for Refugee status, and several weeks of direct appeals by family members were brushed off by East Sepik police hierarchy.
Pastor Abraham Kareni (51), Judit Kambuaya (61), Esboren Fonataba (30) and Anton Toto (39) were attacked by police and Customs, accused of illegally importing the fuel in their boat while escaping to PNG from Indonesian security forces.
Since their arrest, PNG Police, Customs, Courts and Corrections have all denied the four men medical attention, legal representation and basic procedural fairness, who remain in detention at the notorious Boram prison. This is contravenes the minimum obligations on PNG as a signatory and ratifier of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The men’s families have grave fears for their lives and worry that the Indonesian Intelligence has motivated corrupt PNG authorities to imprison them.
This complex story shines light into the murky layers of a barely functioning state apparatus in a town riven by factionalism and corruption, amid allegations of outright treason against PNG. Where every player is deeply interconnected with a hundred others, the lack of basic accountability is complicating natural justice for the four innocent men.
At the centre of this debacle is the corrupt abuse of power by those who should be enforcing the law in Sepik. Senior Customs and Law Enforcement officials have denied any responsibility, telling West Papua Media that the arrests and beatings were conducted without their knowledge or approval, yet disciplinary action against those involved has still not occurred.
After agreeing to hold publication at the request of the prisoner’s families whilst a legal strategy was in play, and to ensure investigators safety, West Papua Media can now reveal that a deep malaise and tolerance for corrupt practices have enabled PNG law enforcement officials to be utilized for personnel vendettas, Indonesian military objectives, all with the shadowy involvement of local militias loyal to the leading business families of East Sepik province.
A very slow boat to freedom
When a historic announcement was made that West Papuan people would hold the Third Papuan People’s Congress, for only the third time in 50 years, to discuss pathways to West Papuan independence, Wewak based refugees Abraham Kareni, Judit Kambuaya and Esboren Fonataba, together with Anthon Toto (a West Papua supporter from Sepik, PNG), decided they must do whatever they could for their people..
The four men planned to be present to assist exiles to return, and to be on standby as contingency should Indonesian violence mean more had to flee. Like most West Papuans, the four knew that returning to West Papua under Indonesian occupation could mean death, or arrest and guaranteed torture. It could also mean that like many ordinary Papuans, death could come from a random act of an aggressive soldier, a bombing or razing of a village, all acts that are untouchable through entrenched impunity.
Whilst in West Papua, they sourced a large amount of two-stroke engine oil, which was to supply not just their own escape, but also to be a contingency for other boat journeys to assist other West Papuans fleeing for their lives.
All four men had long experience of this. Rather than seeking a more secure life when they escaped, they chose to remain in a frontier town for the sake of others. Like Oskar Schindler in World War 2, who helped thousands of Jews escape Nazi persecution, Abraham Kareni is a man who has eschewed his own security and financial benefit to be on hand should more West Papuan people need to flee for their lives from Indonesian brutality. This was done for the noblest of motivations: pure altruism borne from the empathy of experience. Abraham was often a first point of contact for thousands of refugees who fled Indonesia’s violence.
Despite having to smuggle people to freedom, the men were not people smugglers in the accepted international legal definitions, as they have never sought personal financial advantage. The International definitions of people smuggling are explicit (author’s italics):
With Kambuaya, Kareni set up the West Papua Action Group in Wewak and remained politically active, reminding the often sleepy town of the ongoing human tragedy occurring less than a day’s sailing away in West Papua.
Abraham, from Serui in West Papua, originally fled to PNG in 1984 after joining the armed struggle after brutal Indonesian military offensives right across West Papua. Together with an influx of over 10,000 refugees at the time, he reunited with his wife and two children in Blackwater, near Vanimo, and was then sent to a refugee camp in East Awin, Kiunga. Since then, the family had been living in a small shelter in Wewak, a meeting place that is a cornerstone for the Free West Papua movement from armed struggle to non-violent movement, holding critical meetings and workshops for the formation of West Papuan civil resistance – meetings that were auspiced by Sir Michael Somare .
Judit Kambuayawas originally from Sorong in West Papua and also has living in Wewak for almost 32 years.
He married to a local lady from Lumi in East Sepik Province and has two children, both teenage boys. His activism was through music and culture with his Tabamramu cultural group, which toured PNG speaking (and singing) out about the violence occurring in his homeland. Kambuaya had also been assisting other meetings, workshops and creating safe havens for West Papuan student activists.
Esboren Fonatabais an activist in West Papua’s civil resistance movement from Ambai in Serui. His married and has 3 children.
His from Ambai as well and his family lives in Jayapura. Esboren , also known as Morris by locals around Wewak, is married with 3 young children living in Jayapura. Since early 2000, he has been the boat skipper helping the student activists coming to PNG for meetings, workshops or who are escaping from military repression in West Papua, and has been devoting most of his time and effort in helping activists crossing the border via sea route.
Anthon Totois a human rights activist and West Papua supporter from Warpo village, between Vanimo and Aitape, Sandaun, PNG. With a wife and 4 children, Anthon has been helping his friend Morris assisting civil resistance activists in crossing the border.
On the afternoon of October 19, while thousands of people were celebrating the provocative declaration of the independent Federal Republic of West Papua, Indonesian troops opened fire on the peaceful aftermath of the Third Papuan People’s Congress. At least seven people were shot dead and hundreds severely beaten, with 800 arrested. Both Abraham and Judith were arrested, and severely beaten, but were released the next day because Indonesian forces simply did not have the space to detain them.
All four men went into hiding near Jayapura as Indonesian security forces were hunting them, aware of their need to stay in case a major refugee crisis was about to develop. Most activists eventually chose not to flee West Papua, electing to stay and intensify the civil resistance struggle against Indonesia. However, according to trusted sources, contingency arrangements still had to be made ahead of December 1, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of an Independent West Papua, and the first raising of its now banned symbol of freedom the Morning Star flag. Mass demonstrations had been planned for this day, as Indonesian security forces threatened to arrest and shoot anyone showing the flag, as an act of rebellion. A bloody crackdown was expected, but due to the discipline of the movement inside, the bloodshed was limited and Indonesian security forces were restrained by effective international civil media monitoring (coordinated by West Papua Media).
But for Abraham, Judit, Morris and Anthon, they cast off in mid-November to prepare for the moment when thousands would need to flee. They knew that they had to make that crossing, to test the route for that still inevitable day, when the Indonesian military will launch another bloody crackdown.
Local brutality or extending Indonesia’s war by proxy?
At 5pm on Thursday November 17, several hours after the four men arrived back at Kareni’s house on the beach at Boram, opposite Wewak Airport, Police and Customs stormed the house. Three car loads of police and Customs officers were present and threatened family, and destroyed property. The raid was led by Wewak Police Station Commander, James Wangihomie, who authorised the operation, together with his sister-in-law, Customs officer Maggie Wangihomie. Despite the verbal authorisation, no legal warrant was issued by either Customs or the Police.
According to several witnesses, the police – mainly young recruits from outside Sepik – were drunk, as was a police officer known as Sergeant Tassi, who was alleged to be the main perpetrator of the violence. Tassi assaulted Kareni repeatedly in the house, and witnesses allege police struck Kareni – already sustaining a fractured skull from beatings during the 3rd Papuan People’s Congress – at least eleven times on his head.
Speaking on video interviews provided to West Papua Media, Abraham Kareni described the abuse he and his friends received at the hands of Tassi:
“The policeman slapped me. He didn’t talk to me in a proper way. When he asked me questions he just hit me straight away, left, right. I wanted to explain my journey to the policeman, but I couldn’t explain because he didn’t respond with words but with his fists.”
“Then he said ‘you’re a con-man, you always import cigarettes and weapons’. I wanted to answer his claims but he just slapped me. I wanted to explain but he just responded with violence, just kept punching me.”
No cigarettes or weapons were found by either police or Customs.
Kareni continues: “As the police were hitting me I said, Ouch! Don’t hit me on the face. The policeman said ‘Do you want me to kill you? I can kill you now.’ I said ‘thank you, if you want to kill me kill me now’. I was calm, everything that was happening to me, I said to God, ‘whatever happens to me I surrender to you’.”
Mama Sonny described the violence. “As I was standing I saw Abraham getting slapped in the face, he told him to quickly go up into the house to bring down all the things, so from there Abraham carried the boxes down and they slapped him again when he was going to put them in the police car. Not long after the two guys were going to take things to the boat, but they were hit and kicked and slapped from behind until they reached the boat.”
“I want that policeman to be fired. He is really too evil. Because his actions are so violent against us. What he was doing marching up and down was excessive more than the others?” demanded Mama Sonny.
Tassi, after restraining Kareni, turned his attention onto the other three men.
Jude Kambuaya described the attack on him. “They came up to the house without any notice, smashed our belongings, they took our bags. An army jacket that I had bought was wrapped up in the bag. A policeman by the name of Tassi broke open the bag, took out the jacket and put it on. Then he took the things out of the broken bags, and carried it away with the boxes of oil, our fishing nets, he took them and put them in the police car.”
Esboren Fonataba was dismayed at his treatment. “The policeman was holding a stick and started beating my back with it. Twice the stick broke when it hit my back. The first time the stick broke, the policeman just picked up another stick and kept going. I shouted out ‘God, how can this be happening to me!’. They hit me all the way to boat and told us to push to boat out into the water. While I was pushing the boat he hit me on the face.”
At no stage during the operation did James Wangihomie, the officer in charge, attempt to restrain his officers, and sat in or near his car.
Abraham’s son Ronny Kareni is a musician with the band Tabura, as well as a human rights advocate and community organizer living in Australia since arriving as a student in 2002. He travelled to Wewak to assist his father after performing with Tabura at a major music festival in Port Morseby. While visiting his father in prison, Ronny Kareni attempted to secure some element of responsibility from PNG officials over the situation.
According to Ronny Kareni, “The conduct of the arresting officers wasn’t within the law of PNG. How could an arresting Officer on duty, provide no search warrant, come in a drunken state, not have proper consultation, savagely brutalize suspects, and make a vicious verbal attack on the suspects that they are illegal migrants and trouble makers, without any evidence?
All the men were charged formally on November 19 on one count each of “tax Evasion”. Customs allege that detainees attempted to defraud PNG by illegally importing fuel, notwithstanding the lawful excuse that the two-stroke fuel was being transported and stored to provide contingency as a means to escape persecution for other refugees from recent well-documented Indonesian violence in West Papua.
Customs seized the fuel and the Banana boat and a significant amount of engine fuel, together worth an estimated K6000.
Under accepted refugee practice, items that are means to escape persecution cannot be prosecuted. When Ronny went to inspect the seized goods he was presented with the engine oil boxes, including several that were missing their contents. Customs have yet to acknowledge the seizure of the goods, which could raise upwards of K10000 on the vibrant Wewak black market.
According to Ronny Kareni, Customs would drop the charge for illegal immigration, and instead charge the four men under the Customs Acts, Section 16 (2), alleging the detainees sought to “convey imported goods without customs control and entry.”
Since their arrest, Police have consistently refused any of the detainees medical attention, despite being told by family and advocates of pre-existing head injuries from beings sustained during Indonesian security force crackdown at the 3rd Papuan People’s Congress. Francis Kikoli, a police officer who has been involved in previous attacks on the Kareni family, allegedly refused the four men access to food and medical attention for six days following the arrest, and reportedly told the families that they “were banned from bringing food”.
The conditions that the men are being held in are atrocious. Jude Kambuaya says that after being beaten, “we were brought here, we sleep on the cement floor, mosquitoes bite us all over, when the mosquitoes bite me I feel sick and my back is aching.”
Access to legal representation has been also been consistently denied, as the defendants faced Wewak Court on several occasions without the chance to consult lawyers or even having the opportunity to present a defence, according to the family.
Despite attempts to secure guarantees for the four men’s safety whilst being held at the notorious Boram prison, well known for extremely bad behaviour amongst inmates, they remain under grave risk of attack. A local police officer, sympathetic to the men, expressed to West Papua Media his own deep concern. “The detainees shouldn’t be put in Boram prison, especially Abraham and Judith because the prison is different world altogether where inmates run their own show.”
The East Sepik Police Provincial Commander (PPC) Vincent Pokas was not informed of the operation and was absent in Vanimo at the time, alerted only after West Papua Media contacted him for comment. Pokas initially was outraged, and promised to take action to bail the four immediately upon his return to Wewak, and was adamant that they would be released. Unfortunately, Pokas has yet to take action despite having the power to drop charges.
When a report was received that the men were about to be attacked by prisoners just before Christmas, the PPC did not attend as requested by the family and legal representatives. Pokas has been unreachable for comment ever since.
Arresting police have also claimed to West Papua Media that the West Papuan men cannot be considered refugees as they willingly went back to West Papua. Under PNG law (together with most countries) a person avails themselves of protection if they voluntarily choose to return to country of persecution.
Yet International Refugee law is also explicit on the question of fresh evidence. If a person who has returned to the persecuting country, and is then subjected to new persecution, then it is the new round of persecution that determines the claim. All conflicting evidence prior to the fresh persecution is not considered, under the standard guideline of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The immediate experience of Kareni, Kambuaya and Fonataba prior to their most recent escape form West Papua all qualify for fresh claims.
Jude still cannot understand why the PNG authorities are treating him in this way, when he was fleeing for his life. “We came here to escape; now the Customs say that we are here illegally, what do they mean by illegal? We have already been here for many years. I have a permissive residency permit; the PNG government gave me that status in 1984. This is equivalent to being a PNG citizen. So why are they doing this to me? I am married to a woman born inside PNG.
A Wewak based community organiser, who contacted West Papua Media but wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, has described the events as “disgusting” and something that “all people who want a new beginning for PNG should hang their head in shame about”. The source described a situation where most locals in the deeply divided town do not want to get involved, and have also turned a blind eye to the plight of men well known as humanitarians.
“The fact that every policeman, every mauswara tukina raskol in uniform, has completely passed off responsibility for this, is one point to be angry about. But the fact that people like these honourable wantoks from West Papua, who are doing nothing more than making sure their countrymen, our countrymen, are able to have a place to land, and save their lives from the Indonesian killers …. The fact that these corrupt thugs are preying on them for an easy bribe is even more shameful.”
“These families have endured so much at the hands of corrupt thugs, and they are still being picked on by cowardly and corrupt people. They should immediately be given their freedom, permanent protection, and have restitution for their losses so they can have some dignity. And those criminal thugs at the wharf (Customs) should be sacked and forced to pay compensation to their victims,” said the organiser.
Indonesian Whispers lead to a chance to make some kina
One source within the PNG police in Vanimo has claimed to West Papua Media that the four men were spotted as they left a secluded cove near Jayapura, and Indonesian intelligence contacted its officers in the Consulate in Vanimo.
According to the Wewak office of Customs, the operation occurred after a tip off was received on the morning of November 17 in Vanimo that the boat was headed to Wewak and would need to be intercepted. It was alleged to Customs that the boat was carrying weapons and marijuana.
Enquiries made by West Papua Media have narrowed the source of the tip off to one of three possibilities: either from a troublesome faction of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN) based near Vanimo, or directly from the Indonesian military attaché at Vanimo consulate, or both.
West Papuan exiles are no different to any other displaced diaspora in that their politics are factionally riven. However one particular grouping in Vanimo has caused more grief for long term refugees in PNG than any other.
Internet postings one week prior to Kareni’s arrest – that people associated with the nonviolent struggle were actually seeking to ferry weapons and drugs in and out of PNG – match up with the allegations that Wewak Customs said they received from Vanimo. PPC Vincent Pokas, on the day after the arrests, had confirmed to West Papua Media that the allegation had arisen from a West Papuan in Vanimo. However, when the author asked “was that the Indonesian consulate?”, the PPC answered “Yes”, and then “Look, Sir, I cannot tell you that”.
Whether the statement by Pokas is verifiable is unimportant. Past operations by PNG security forces against West Papuan refugees have left critical questions unanswered about the extent of Indonesian intelligence agency involvement. This is a question that not a single serving officer in Wewak Customs or Police will be drawn upon on the record.
Established Indonesian intelligence practice in many countries has been to manipulate local law enforcement as an extra-territorial extension of its anti-separatist policies. The is despite Jakarta’s double-standard in insisting that no other country interferes in West Papua, yet its agencies are happy to interfere in PNG government processes, using PNG personnel to continue the war against West Papuan activists by proxy.
There is deep suspicion at the timing of the arrest of the four men, as part of an alleged campaign by Indonesia to silence its international critics in the immediate aftermath of its crackdown on Third Papuan People’s Congress. Kareni was a direct witness to the violence, and his testimony was internationally broadcast days after the Indonesian brutality was captured on video and social media. Indonesia’s interests would be well served by indefinitely imprisoning a direct witness.
PNG has systemic form in denying West Papuan refugees legal representation under pressure from Indonesia. During the Sunset Merona raid, not one refugee was ever afforded independent legal representation after being accused by the Sunset Merona commanders of being armed rebels, and all were promptly bundled away to the Kiunga camps, deep in the jungle on the remote PNG – West Papua border, far from independent communications.
Tony Edwards, a long term supporter of the West Papuans in Wewak, says no-one can say that any of the four are here illegally. “The four guys who came here are not illegal immigrants, they are citizens of Sepik region. They are citizens of Wewak and we regard them as being Sepik people.”
Abraham Kareni is adamant that outside forces have played a role in their detention. “The way I see it, there is involvement from Indonesian Intelligence and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in this case.”
“Now they are also using our own people, they reported us to Customs so that Customs would come and arrest us. If Indonesian Intelligence and the CID weren’t involved, then nothing they wouldn’t have arrested us and we wouldn’t be in prison,” said Kareni.
Questions are still unanswered as to why PNG agencies still see fit to carry out Indonesian demands for persecution without any form of accountability or even basic cross-checking for the political motivations of such demands. By refusing to investigate and demand an onus of legal proof from Indonesian authorities, PNG has repeatedly run the risk of handing its sovereign process directly to the Indonesian security forces already physically present in the province.
Murky history of Customs corruption
Are PNG’s security forces, including Customs, in the hands of the Indonesian military? Or is the corruption of the few creating a danger for those honest officers within the forces? With the almost 18,000 Indonesian soldiers along the border being reinforced daily, and deep infiltration of both the former Somare government (too early to tell with the O’Neill government) and PNG’s business elite, massive ongoing corruption in the forestry sector with Indonesian military run logging interests
West Papua Media has been informed by several reliable sources in Wewak that the secretive operation was highly unusual and did not follow procedure. Gunu Gao Yonge, Acting Manager of the Customs Officer in Wewak, kept the operation secret from all other staff members apart from Maggie Wangihomie, the Customs representative that took the Police officers down to the Kareni house at Boram.
Only Gunu Yonge and Maggie Wangihomie were aware of the operation, according to other officers. When asked by Ronny Kareni, Yonge refused to disclose the name of the arresting officers or any of the police officers involved in the arrest, but this information was sourced from witnesses and other officers.
“Yonge is accountable, and must justify why those drunken police officers savagely brutalized four detainees. Her evasiveness to questions show there is a huge level of hidden truth and fraudulent conduct in this operation,” said Ronny.
The Wewak office of PNG Customs has a long documented history of corrupt dealings associated with the logging industry and biased operations and persecutions. Several reports by NGOs and government agencies since 2006 have identified repeated and deliberate failures by Customs to enforce PNG law on Malaysian owned illegal logging operations, the removal and correct labelling of high value hardwood timber, and the correct enforcement on equipment brought from Malaysia, Indonesia and West Papua on Indonesian military connected vessels.
Illegal workers, trafficked prostitutes, undutied imported supplies and contraband for the mainly Indonesian personnel working at the illegal logging sites are also ignored regularly by Customs in Wewak, despite their office being situated in front of the main entrance to the Wewak wharf.
In addition, Taiwanese and Filipino fishing fleets still bring in illegal labourers to their tuna cannery, once again right in front of the Customs office.
Most worrying of all is the selectivity of operations under Customs, and the question of who gets targeted. The blindspots of Customs surveillance is in East Sepik are telling.
Multiple direct complaints have been made to Customs and police by local human rights investigators in the past that their officers have only been present in Kaup, the family village of former Prime Minister and attempted coup leader Sir Michael Somare, whilst being entertained by Arthur Somare, the former East Sepik raskol leader, governor and business figure, and now Member of Parliament. This is despite the unmolested presence of a large timber terminal operated by notorious Malaysian logger Rimbunan Hijau, which is consistently shipping out undeclared timber, and shipping in undeclared contraband, illegal workers and sex slaves.
Local human rights investigators also claimed to the author during a previous investigation that Arthur Somare’s own house allegedly housed a prostitutes’ barracks
that has been a regular haunt of Wewak based Customs and Police officers.
Further allegations have been raised with West Papua Media, but at time of publication no confirmation or denial has been forthcoming if any of the officers involved in the illegal raid had been present in Kaup in the months ahead of the raid.
What is clear is that no contraband seizures or arrests from Indonesian timber vessels have occurred in recent months, despite numerous tip-offs from local investigators. Gunu Yonge reacted angrily when asked about this discrepancy by West Papua Media, and hung up the phone.
Deep internal divisions within both Wewak Police and Customs have also been exposed by the arrests and subsequent mishandling of the case. The PPC, Vincent Pokas, met with Abraham and the others on December 13 at Boram Prison and explained the extent of police and customs corruption and internal conflict, according to Kareni family.
Obed Mathew is the former customs manager in Wewak, and was suspended after Gunu Yonge allegedly engineered his dismissal after he raised discipline and accountability issues at the office. He told West Papua Media that the procedure of customs seizing of goods is outside the normal procedure.
“Usually we hold a briefing for all staff members, then we (Customs) go to the suspects and identify the goods. We then make consultation with the suspects, and seize goods only if they are used for commercial purposes have not been declared. The normal procedure is usually, if the suspect has not reported in 24 hours, there is a breach of customs provisional law. In this case they didn’t wait until after 24 hours”.
Matthew further explained that the operation authorised by Yonge is a clear case of Official Misconduct, as it was conducted without regard to procedure, understanding of the law, or fair process, and well before the expiry of the compliance period. Matthew was so incensed by the treatment of the four defendants that he agreed to become their legal guarantor.
Marryanne Gito, a Customs officer on day leave when the raid took place, told West Papua Media that she had no awareness of the operation. She testified that other staff members were not briefed of the operation beforehand, saying the case is very unusual.
Gunu Yonge told West Papua Media just before she hung up again on the author, that she had no understanding of the legal framework around the arrest, and therefore would have to refer all legal questions to Customs lawyers. However, when West Papua Media requested contact details for Customs legal representatives, officers had no knowledge of those representatives.
On December 14, after receiving the names of the arresting officers from his sources, Ronny Kareni returned to the Customs office to confirm this information with the acting Customs manager.
“When I went to double check with Yonge, she accused me of obstructing Customs, and further mentioned that their office was not handling the case, but the regional office is”.
However, Francis Nipuru, the East Sepik regional Customs Commissioner, was not notified of the operation, nor its outcome, until notified by Ronny on December 13.
“I said to her face that she was lying because the regional office wasn’t aware of the operation until I personally called Francis Nipuru, who followed up with Gunu later on Tuesday”
However, Nipuru also has not attempted to seek clarification or review of the charges laid by Customs on the four men, despite being in a position to drop all charges.
“When Yonge heard what I said, she walked away from me and went straight into her office. Her reaction was childish. By walking away from this conversation is enough proof that she authorised an illegal and corrupt operation to arrest my father and his friends,” Ronny said.
Denial of basic Justice
Since the arrests, none of the defendants have been afforded access to lawyers, and custodial police have actively obstructed lawyers and legal workers from meeting with their clients or having access to even basic charge sheets.
Two court appearances have occurred in this case, but both have been adjourned until January 9. In neither case were the defendants allowed to be present. The Police Prosecutor, Salvado Namtane, has also participated in the denial of justice by by not objecting to the procedural violations and basic court rules by insisting that adequate legal representation has been afforded to the defendants.
Nowhere in the process have either the family members been provided with either a Brief of Evidence or even a charge sheet, nor a Customs version of Facts and allegations against the four men. The police prosecutor has refused to provide any copies of allegations, which have not been formally obtained, however Ronny Kareni reported that he sighted the prosecutor’s Summary.
According to the Summary, the defendants have been categorised by the Provincial Court as Grade 5 suspects. Grade 5 is the most extreme Court categorisation, reserved for suspects in murder or aggravated armed robbery cases and requires a senior magistrate. The minimum cost for bail in such a case requires between 5000-6000 Kina (approx A$2300- A$2800)
Interestingly, the bail price itself has reduced significantly since arrest. Initial bail was set at an impossible 55,000 Kina, ten times higher than the bail set for accused murderers. This amount was promptly reduced to 5,500 kina when objected to.
The families of the detainees have expressed deep concern at what they are seeing as “a cycle of exploitation that has been started”. Ronny Kareni explained “my family feel like everyone is just trying to get on the game, and even the lawyers are just asking money we do not have”
According to Ronny, “3000 Kina has already been paid to the lawyer William Tekwie from Wagambie Lawyers, and he is demanding another 2000 kina as standby for bailout that might happen any day. But the court date has been adjourned to January 9, so my family cannot understand how they are going to get it. They are refugees, not businessmen” *(please see endnote for Correction and clarification of the contentious paragraph)
“We fled from persecution, only to be persecuted by our own blood”
Reliable sources in Wewak, once again seeking anonymity for fear of reprisal, have expressed their belief that the detention is linked high level corruption in the province involving leading Sepik political and business families, and in particular, a development proposal for the land on which the shelters were burnt. The families and individuals have been named by these sources, but West Papua Media has not able to independently source robust supporting evidence or documentation directly in relation to this particular case to consider the identification of those family names. The land is considered prime tourism real estate in Wewak, immediately opposite the airport terminal and lined with a postcard tropical beach.
In 2008, the compound belong to the West Papuan refugees in Boram was attacked by a loosely formed group comprising raskols, who claimed – after 24 years – that compound squatted illegally on their land. All seven houses and fishing sheds in the compound were burned to the ground, and families had to again rebuild from scratch after calm was restored.
Both family members and independent community workers in Wewak have claimed that the land was legally provided by Jerewai clan members to house refugees after the massive Indonesian offensives in West Papua in 1984. The Somare family, who also have extended family land on the east side of the airport, reportedly gave their deep support to the refugees at the time to set up houses on the site in order to maintain their traditional fishermen’s lifestyle.
Just one week before the arrest of the four men in early November, another attack occurred on Kareni’s house.
A Sepik local, who was drinking in the town, allegedly punched a man. He was chased and ran into the Kareni compound to seek shelter, when a group of drunken men attacked the compound to flush out the man.
This attack, carried by children of several serving police officers, smashed up the houses under the cover of darkness. The son of senior police officer Francis Kikoli was allegedly involved in the attack. Kikoli himself has been linked by sources in Wewak to ongoing abuses on behalf of logging interests in the Sepik.
A complete failure of responsibility
According to Ronny Kareni, every office holder in East Sepik can put a speedy end to this embarrassing saga “by making a simple determination of misconduct, and simply dropping the charges to give the men their freedom and dignity. All is requires is for people to face up to their responsibilities”.
Most of all, the corrupt behaviour of the customs officers has turned ordinary people’s lives upside down, people that deserve the protection and not the persecution from the state.
Whatever the outcome of the court hearings, if the family remain in Wewak they will continue to remain in extreme danger. Mama Kambuaya is in a desperate situation.
“Right now we are very worried. I haven’t eaten today. I went there to see them in the prison. It’s a big burden to see them all in prison. It’s a big worry how can we help to release them. We feel really bad about this, we want them to be released and come back home to us.”
Will anyone in a position to take responsibility actually do so, or will this next episode of denial of West Papuan refugee rights be yet another shameful chapter of PNG acquiescence to Indonesian military aims? Will PNGs’ new leaders show resolve in standing up to Indonesia, or will they continue to do the dirty work for Indonesia’s proxy war on PNG soil?
For Abraham Kareni the situation is clear, and he calls on PNG people to not just help his friends, but to stand up for Papua as a whole. “We came to PNG, because we share one island, one culture, we are Melanesian brothers. From Papua New Guinea and from West Papua we are all brothers, we share one skin, that’s why we came here to seek refuge, for them to be aware of our bad situation, to see whether they can help us or not. But I see that they don’t recognise this yet, how we are fighting for our rights.”
Will the people of Papua New Guinea stand up for their wantoks?
To assist the family or the case, please contact Ronny Kareni at ronny_kareni<@>yahoo.com.au or at +61401222177
ENDNOTE: CORRECTION AND CLARIFICATION
WIlliam Tekwie has taken exception to an accurate and direct quotation in the above article from Ronny Kareni who was reporting the fact that the family of Abraham Kareni was concerned at the cost of legal fees. As West Papua Media‘s fact checking systems have verified the accuracy of both the quote and the factuality of what was said, we cannot remove this quote, as this would be unethical. Moreover, West Papua Media did seek comment from Tekwie via his office number, his mobile contact, via personal messages to and from his client’s family, yet he could not be reached for comment prior to publication. Furthermore, the family of the clients made it very clear that Tekwie would not be making comments to the media. We acknowledge that we made an error in not publishing this fact of non-availability, and apologise for this error.
We stand by the correct use of the word “demand” in the quote – as that is the word that was given, and the Oxford English Dictionary definition concurs ( See http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/demand). West Papua Media does not believe it implies that Tekwie attempted duress on the family, nor threat or undue pressure for any personal gain. We certainly had no intention for such an implication. We also believe it to be self-evident that a bail fee would be paid to a court, and not to a lawyer, as is standard practice in PNG, Australia, and in any court in the Anglophone world, and therefore we did not believe a there was a need to editorialise this issue to clarify that a bail fee would not be used by the lawyer personally. We acknowledge that Mr Tekwie believes this is not self-evident and this is a difference of opinion that he is entitled to.
Mr Tekwie has brought it to our attention that he “even offered to return some of the fees I had been paid to assist the Kareni family pay the bail amount!”. This information was not available from any source at time of publication despite checking.. It is also to be noted that Mr Tekwie offered a discount for representation fees to the family.
Therefore West Papua Media is willing to acknowledge William Tekwie’s hurt feelings and apologises unreservedly for any offence he believes we have caused through this paragraph, and for any inadvertent damage to his reputation.
West Papua Media also acknowledges the hard work that Tekwie has done for his clients since the article was published on December 27, and wishes him full success in the case, and his future advocacy work.”