PAPUA NEW GUINEA STUDENT UNREST REPORT TABLED

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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (April 2, 2002 – The National)---Bad student leadership meant students broke laws and did not follow proper procedures set down for demonstrations during last year's students-led unrest in Port Moresby which resulted in the death of four people, Commissioner Sir Robert Woods said in his report that was tabled in Parliament last Thursday.

But Sir Robert conceded the killings may have been committed by police personnel who were out-manned, under-resourced and placed in a difficult situation when confronted by a frenzied mob.

The report did not recommend the banning of demonstrations in the future.

Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta, who ordered the Commission of Inquiry into the unrest, tabled the 32-page report in Parliament on Thursday.

The inquiry was set up after protests led by University of Papua New Guinea students against the Government's privatization program and perceived land mobilization policy turned violent, resulting in the killing of four people, two of them university students.

The protests lasted from June 21 to 25, 2001. The Inquiry was set up on Aug 7, and completed its report at the end of September.

A total of 87 witnesses testified before the inquiry, 33 of whom were students, seven university staff, and 31 police personnel.

Sir Robert, who was brought up from Australia to head the one-man Commission of Inquiry, said student leaders organized forums and awareness campaigns and a referendum for boycott of classes in breach of their own Students' Representative Council constitution.

He said it appeared that the awareness campaigns involved some misinformation about privatization and land mobilization.

The retired judge found that the march and demonstration in the city was done without any prior sanction by police, thus breaching Motor Traffic regulations by blocking roads and ignoring basic rights of members of the public to move freely and engage in their normal activities.

He said despite no proper planning with the authorities, police acted reasonably and did not take a confrontational approach.

Sir Robert found that the protesters' refusal to allow a small deputation of senior ministers to accept their petition, and their demand that only the Prime Minister come down and accept it, was an unreasonable and unconstitutional conduct.

He said after presenting the petition to the Prime Minister, the protesters had no further right to continue to assemble at Morauta Haus, and police were quite entitled to take appropriate action to disperse them.

He said on the night of June 25, police acted to restore order because of serious criminal activities taking place along Waigani Drive and near the University, and in the process some police personnel may have breached the guidelines (or manual) for the use of weapons by lowering their weapons and shooting in a manner that caused injuries and deaths.

A panicky reaction by police on June 26 also caused them to shoot into a crowd, causing shotgun injuries to some of them.

"The whole history of events reflects badly on the leadership of the Students Representative Council and if anything is a lesson in how not to protest."

Sir Robert also recommended that police need more and continual training in crowd control, and they need to be properly equipped with adequate supplies of teargas, gas respirators, helmets, shields and batons.

He saw no need to change the laws governing procedures for permission to protest, saying the government must accept that there will be occasions when people want to protest.

He also urged the government to get information about its policies to the people using its information network, and expressed concern that its national radio system had broken down with many provincial stations going off air.

Sir Robert also pointed out that a university had no right to prevent students from exercising their democratic right to criticize and protest.

He found no evidence that any person or authority outside the police improperly or illegally issued directions to the police during the unrest period.

But he found that there was outside financial support to help fund the students' campaign, although there was no evidence to support names that came up during the inquiry.

Prime Minister Sir Mekere said the government accepted the findings of Sir Robert's report, and would implement them to prevent such events occurring again.

"The events covered by the report were a tragedy. Young people died, others were injured and properties damaged.

"The lesson for all of us is to accept the fact that various sections of society have differences of opinion. What we need to accept more importantly is that there are peaceful, rational ways of reconciling them," he said.

For additional reports from The National, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The National (Papua New Guinea).

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