Friday 7 August 2015 | Published in Regional
A three-person bench of the court unanimously decided the judge who started the inquiry was wrong to preside over proceedings and failed to disclose that an expert witness was a friend, according to local media reports.
In February last year, justice David Cannings took the initiative to start the inquiry to see if human rights guaranteed under PNG’s constitution were being breached by the detention of asylum seekers.
He appointed Dr Paul Crouch-Chivers, who is a public health specialist, as a key expert witness. Dr Crouch-Chivers has previously worked at the University of Papua New Guinea, as well as the Australian High Commission
“During the time of appointment of witness Dr Crouch-Chivers by the court, His Honour Mr Cannings failed to draw attention to his connection being a personal friend of long connection to the witness,” Justice Sir Bernard Sakora said, according to the Post-Courier newspaper.
The lawyer for the State of PNG and the chief migration officer argued the constitution allowed a judge to “initiate” a human rights inquiry but not to “conduct” that inquiry.
The Supreme Court ruled Cannings’ move to initiate the inquiry would have created a reasonable suspicion he had an interest in the case and was therefore not impartial.
“This was a case that ought not to have been embarked upon in the manner the learned primary judge did,” Sakora was quoted as saying.
When the PNG Government was granted a stay order on the human rights inquiry in March 2014, Cannings immediately started a second inquiry into possible human rights breaches against asylum seekers.
Several other challenges to the Australian-run immigration centre are ongoing, including a case in which a third of the asylum seekers detained say they have been denied access to a lawyer and have been unfairly denied their right to liberty.
Amnesty International labelled today’s Supreme Court decision a “devastating blow” to asylum seekers.
“The case may have far-reaching consequences for human rights protection for all people in Papua New Guinea,” spokeswoman Kate Schuetze said.
“The same powers and process has been used to investigate a number of human rights abuses, including appalling conditions in the prisons and police brutality.
“Before the inquiry into the Australian-run immigration detention centre on Manus Island, these powers of the court had not been challenged.
“We will know more about the powers for the courts to launch an inquiry of its own initiative next week, when the decision on a Supreme Court reference is due to be delivered.”
The Manus Island detention centre is part of Australia’s policy to process offshore any asylum seekers who arrived in Australian waters by boat after 9 July, 2014 as a disincentive to making the dangerous journey.
Two years after the policy was announced, more than 40 refugees have been moved out of detention and into a transit facility on Manus Island, but none have been permanently resettled in PNG.
Almost 1000 men remain in immigration detention.