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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, Mar. 17) – Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Rabbie Namaliu says Australia has backed down from its tough position on immunity for its police personnel who would be deployed in Papua New Guinea under the Enhanced Cooperation Program.

Instead, he said, Australia it will consider a PNG proposal to operate under a "status of forces" agreement, similar to the one that exists between the two countries’ defense forces.

Namaliu met with his Australian counterpart, Alexander Downer, in Sydney on Monday to sort out differences on the immunity issue that had stalled talks at official level on an ECP agreement.

Sir Rabbie said the kind of immunity the Australian government had sought for police working in PNG under the ECP was unconstitutional and undesirable.

PNG was firm that the question of immunity, jurisdiction and sovereignty was non-negotiable, while Canberra was adamant on its jurisdiction over criminal immunity.

"I have made it very clear to the Australian Foreign Minister that immunity in the form Australia seeks will not be granted by our government, let alone our National Parliament.

"I have also made it clear that the position is not comparable with the deployment of police and other personnel in East Timor, Iraq or even the Solomon Islands.

"The program is not an intervention. It’s an addition to our existing aid arrangements to address our law and order needs," he said.

Sir Rabbie said Australian police and other personnel had been seconded to the PNG Police Force, and other agencies under AusAID programs and other arrangements since independence without the immunity now being sought.

"In our discussions, we have always stressed the ECP will only work if Australian police personnel work side by side with our police. In doing so they must be subject to the same laws if the program is to achieve its goals," he said.

"Our courts are as independent as any in the world. Our judiciary is competent as well as impartial, " he said.

Sir Rabbie said that PNG had proposed that the current Status of Forces Agreement between the PNG and Australian defense forces be considered as a model for the police co-operation package.

"The agreement would be similar to the Status of Forces Agreement that has existed for some time –– and worked well –– between the PNG and Australian defense forces."

At a media conference later in the day, Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare said: "Our Constitution does not allow for immunity and we can’t make special Acts or amendments to grant immunity."

He said the Australian Federal Police would be assisting the police force in PNG under the command of the Police Commissioner.

The same would apply to key departments within the public sector, he said, adding that they would come under the existing structures in the government departments by playing supporting roles.

"I can’t change this because I have a special Constitution to follow," he said.

However, he said the government supports the ECP because it would assist in boosting the economy by improving investment and promoting growth.

March 17, 2004

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