PNG crackdown on activists continues

May 21, 1997

By Norm Dixon

The PNG government is continuing its attacks on the country's activist and non-government organisations in retaliation for their role in the defeat of the Chan government's plan to deploy apartheid-linked mercenaries on Bougainville. On May 12, director of the Individual and Community Rights and Advocacy Forum Powes Parkop was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly.

The government has singled out PNG's leading NGOs — PNG Watch, ICRAF and PNG Trust — and the radical group Melanesian Solidarity (Melsol). The groups, particularly Melsol, organise grassroots communities to defend their rights against the incursions of mining and forestry companies.

On May 5 and 6, heavily armed police raided the organisations' offices and charged Melsol executive members John Kawowo and John Napo, and PNG Watch general secretary Jonathan O'ata, with unlawful assembly. O'ata and Powes Parkop are also leading members of Melsol.

Parkop described the charges against the four activists as baseless and politically motivated. The trials would be "political show trials", Parkop said. District Court Magistrate Bill Noki, presiding over Parkop's bail hearing on May 12, seemed to agree, declaring "the wrong people are in court". The four activists' cases have been adjourned to May 21.

PNG Trade Union Congress general secretary John Paska said the "draconian" action against activists posed a greater threat to democracy in PNG than either the military mutiny over the employment of mercenaries or the large protests against the Chan government in March.

PNG's NGOs believe the raids and arrests are the start of a "major operation to eliminate them". The arrests are an attack on the PNG people's constitutional right to free association, free assembly and free speech, Parkop said. "If the government succeeds in banning and silencing the NGOs, everybody else's rights and freedoms are at risk."

The activist and NGO groups have appealed for international support. They are asking that protest messages be sent to the PNG government condemning the raids, arrests and confiscation of property as an attempt to suppress NGOs and the people's right to free speech, association and assembly. Messages calling for the charges against the four activists to be dropped would also be appreciated.

Messages should be addressed to: the Honourable John Giheno, Acting Prime Minister, Office of the Prime Minister, PO Box 639, Waigani, National Capital District, Papua New Guinea. Fax 675 327 6540. Copies of protest letters should be faxed to Melsol at 675 326 0273.

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