PNG blocks Manus Island inquiries

Two legal inquiries into the violence at the Manus Island detention centre have been shut down.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has defended Papua New Guinea's efforts to shut down at least two legal inquiries into the treatment of asylum seekers in the Manus Island detention centre, after the violence that left one man dead and scores injured.

A PNG National Court judge, Justice David Cannings, announced early last month he would hold an independent inquiry into the conditions in the centre, and determine whether asylum seekers' human rights were being upheld under the country's constitution.

He told Australian Lawyers for Human Rights last August that he was able to exercise these powers under the law: "In human rights we have a provision in the Constitution, section 57, that we have a duty to enforce human rights and in the same section, it says that judges can do this on their own initiative."

But on March 21, the PNG government accused the former human rights lawyer of bias, and obtained a court injunction to force a stay on his inquiry. Cannings had already toured the centre and held several interviews with asylum seekers. He ordered Australian barrister Jay Williams to go back into the centre and continue to collect affidavits from 75 detainees.

On March 24, Williams initiated a challenge to the indefinite detention of those he interviewed at the local district court and returned to the centre to continue questioning. Although he cannot appear as a lawyer in PNG courts, anyone can launch a human rights appeal. Three days after he filed that case, on March 28, officials produced a court order against Williams to leave the centre.

Cannings has scheduled further hearings for his second inquiry. But the PNG government is launching a Supreme Court appeal on the grounds that Cannings will not disqualify himself on the grounds of partiality.

Yet the fact that PNG is going to arguably extraordinary lengths to prevent an independent investigation into the detention camp that was the site of an organised, violent assault on its inmates is indicative of the offshore refugee prison's true purpose.

A PNG minister, Rimbink Pato, told Fairfax Media that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop believed Cannings' inquiry was dangerous. "They were concerned as well that we should do something like this," he said. "It's a joint thing."

Abbott dodged questions about the inquiry when he visited PNG, but said he had faith in PNG's "robust legal system", despite that system being in significant turmoil.

The Manus Island detention centre is less a "processing facility" and more a dumping ground for the people Australia has a responsibility to protect, but has rejected anyway to score political points at home. Abbott would rather they remained faceless, detained without access to either Australia's or PNG's laws and due process.

He has even backed the pre-emptive and unfounded "suspicions" of PNG PM Peter O'Neill that most of the 1300 asylum seekers detained in the Australian-funded detention camp are not genuine refugees, but "economic migrants" — foreshadowing the possibility that PNG could reject and deport many detainees in the coming months.

PNG's legal framework for determining refugee status and resettlement options will not be finalised until May. But despite this, O'Neill told a joint press conference with Abbott last month: "Many of them now that have been processed, a good majority of them, are economic refugees. They are not genuine refugees. So, as such they will be sent back to the country of origin."

Abbott said Australia would help make sure "people not found to be refugees are swiftly repatriated".

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