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Manus Island: Papua New Guinea court rules human rights inquiry null and void over perceived bias

By Papua New Guinea correspondent Liam Cochrane

Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court has declared a human rights inquiry into the Australian-run detention centre on Manus Island to be null and void, because of perceived bias.

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," said justice Sir Bernard Sakora, according to the Post-Courier newspaper.

The lawyer for the State of PNG and the chief migration officer argued that the Constitution allowed a judge to "initiate" a human rights inquiry but not to "conduct" that inquiry.

The Supreme Court ruled that Mr Cannings' move to initiate the inquiry would have created a reasonable suspicion that 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," Mr Sakora was quoted as saying.

When the PNG Government was granted a stay order on the human rights inquiry in March 2014, Mr 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.

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 1,000 men remain in immigration detention.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation