The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (Jan. 9) - The low-key reaction of officialdom to the extraordinary episode involving Madang's convicted Governor James Yali is a sad commentary on the state of law and order in Papua New Guinea.

There is no provision under Papuan New Guinean law that would have permitted Yali's dramatic arrival at provincial government headquarters in order to chair the budget session of the Madang government.

Yet the response from jail officials, Correctional Service spokesmen, and others who may have been involved has either been to blame others, or to dismiss the incident as if it were trivial.

Yesterday the Northern Police Commander expressed concern that Yali's unprecedented release "could create tension among prisoners."

The Commander said that he didn't want prisoners to think "there is one law for leaders who have been convicted of crimes, and a different law for the others." Those are commendable sentiments but they come very late in the day.

The incident occurred at least two weeks ago, and no matter how concerned the Commander may be, the fact is that the Madang incident has shown that, at least in practice, there certainly is one "law" for convicted leaders and another for ordinary prisoners.

The remanded Governor has already been found guilty of rape, and is held in jail pending the handing-down of sentence one week from today.

The whole issue of Yali's continued holding of the position of Governor appears to have thrown officials into turmoil.

It is our understanding that under PNG law, a person found guilty of a criminal offence is immediately required to step down from public office.

We further understand that the question of appeal, or for that matter, the convicted criminal remaining in custody while awaiting sentence, has no direct bearing on that law.

If our understanding is correct, then what steps are being taken to ensure that the now vacant position of Governor is filled forthwith?

There appears to be no obvious reason why there should be further delay.

Some readers may wonder why we regard the matter as a serious breach of the law.

Any convicted criminals, if allowed to leave jail at will, has at least the chance of wreaking revenge upon those whose evidence put him in prison.

One can easily imagine cases where a person found guilty of, say, murder, manages to persuade jail authorities that he has to attend to some "urgent matter" relating to his employment or perhaps to his family.

Once outside the jail walls, a desperate criminal could attempt to attack witnesses, or simply succeed in escaping.

We make no suggestion that such possibilities were ever intended in the Madang case. Yali appears to have been intent solely on chairing an important meeting of the provincial assembly.

But the potential remains, and the law do not make allowances for exceptions for "big men", or for anyone else.

If, as we assume, his legal position with regard to his holding or otherwise of the Governor's position was made clear to him when he was found guilty of rape, the situation should not have arisen.

Or did he act while fully aware that he was doing so in defiance of the law?

Then there is the question of the jail authorities.

What over-riding considerations made them agree to Yali walking out of the jail to attend the provincial assembly?

We note that the Northern region police commander has directed the Madang police commander to "set up a task force to investigate the release of Yali."

That is a move in the right direction, if a very much delayed response.

It seems at least possible that Yali could face further charges relating to his absence from jail, and that possibility needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

In the meantime, the strongest possible message should be sent to jail commanders around the country to make sure that their inmates are fully aware that prisoners serving sentences, or convicted criminals on remand, have no right to leave jail on request, or at their own convenience.

The law must not only be observed, but be seen to be observed - and that by everybody, regardless of their position.

January 10, 2006

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