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PAPUA NEW GUINEA – Concerned community groups say rising tensions over a disputed arrest warrant for Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister have led the country to a new constitutional crisis.

This week, students at the country’s largest university boycotted classes and held the first major protests against the ongoing legal battle that has prevented anti-corruption officers from interviewing Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.

The protests came as PNG’s Supreme Court involved itself in the dispute and confronted the country’s police commissioner over his closure of the country’s last remaining anti-corruption body, the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption directorate.

Non-government organisations and observer groups have formed a Community Coalition Against Corruption.

Lawrence Stephens, the group’s spokesman from Transparency International, said conflict between PNG’s constitutional office-holders was bad for stability and governance.

“We’ve termed it a constitutional crisis and it’s something that Papua New Guinea has had before,” he said.

“It’s brought on by people trying to do things with constitutional powers which need to be considered carefully by the courts and it appears to be an assault on democracy, an assault on the constitution.”

Stephens said the delays, complications and manoeuvring by senior officials in response to the anti-corruption probe was damaging Papua New Guineans’ trust in institutions.

“The country is losing sight of what good governance is,” he said.

Student leaders at the University of Papua New Guinea and Lae’s University of Technology have called for the prime minister to step aside and allow anti-corruption police to interview him.

The protest is the first that police have not shut down due to it being on university grounds, but the students been warned against taking it off campus.

One of the student leaders, Samuel Apa, said the students were sacrificing their own education, because other groups in society had been stopped from expressing their anger about the current conflict.

“If we do not do it, nobody will do it and others outside us will not do it,” he said.

“The students, we have this power, this time, to do it and we will do it.”

Various court cases involving the prime minister and senior ministers remain before the courts.

The Prime Minister and Finance Minister James Marape have stymied fraud unit inquiries into allegations against them by seeking court orders effectively stopping police from arresting or interviewing them in relation to alleged fraudulent payments to an accounting firm.

But O’Neill’s legal team last week lost an attempt to set aside an appeal and interim orders preventing anti-corruption officers from arresting them.

The Supreme Court refused leave for lawyers to make a slip rule application, meaning there are now fewer restrictions on anti-corruption police investigating and charging O’Neill.

O’Neill and Marape are wanted for questioning by anti-corruption police investigating the alleged payment of about $30 million of allegedly fraudulent legal bills to law firm Paraka Lawyers.

A separate court order still prevents police from arresting O’Neill, but not Marape.