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Court challenge to PNG refugee camp

Sir Mekere
PNG PM Sir Mekere Morauta has attacked Australian media for its coverage of the asylum seekers issue  

By Grant Holloway
CNN Sydney

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (CNN) -- A fresh storm has broken out concerning the fate and treatment of 364 mainly Afghani asylum seekers being held on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

Human rights lawyers have applied to the National Court in Port Moresby for the release and compensation of the asylum seekers, arguing that their detention breaches four sections of the Pacific nation's constitution.

Lawyer Patrick Harricknen told Australian Broadcasting Corporation program Foreign Correspondent earlier this week that Papua New Guinea had breached four sections of its constitution by accepting the 364 asylum seekers currently being held on Manus Island.

"You can only detain a person only if he or she commits an offence and whoever is detained has the right to receive legal aid," he said.

The Afghani and Iraqi asylum seekers were shipped to Manus Island in September last year by the Australian navy as part of a deal between Canberra and Port Moresby to process refugee protection visa claims outside Australian borders.

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Another 1,200 asylum seekers were shipped to the tiny island nation of Nauru as part of Australia's so-called "Pacific solution" aimed at discouraging the flow of boat-people to Australian shores.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard refused to comment on the legality of the PNG action Thursday, saying the matter was purely one for the PNG government and courts to sort out.

"I'm not going to presume to offer a view on a constitutional case in another country," Howard told media.

"We negotiated an arrangement with the PNG Government, we thought it was a sensible thing to do, we stand by that."

Aid money

Howard also refuted allegations that up a third of the asylum seekers on Manus had contracted malaria, saying the incidence of the illness was far lower than that.

Australia has budgeted about $45 million (Aust. $85 million) to fund the Pacific Solution, some of which may have been paid directly, or promised to the PNG government, in return for its co-operation.

PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta, however, has denied suggestions aid money from Australia was released early to facilitate the deal.

Morauta, meanwhile, has lashed out at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for illegally entering his nation to prepare its report on Manus Island.

"The actions of the ABC are grossly dishonest and disrespectful," Morauta said.

"It treats the laws and sovereignty of a friendly neighbor with contempt."

'Irresponsible, incompetent'

Access to Manus Island has been strictly controlled with media crews banned from entering the island.

Morauta, who faces a general election later this year, said the media report demonstrated a profound ignorance of PNG culture and used sources which were known to be politically biased.

In response, ABC Foreign Correspondent's executive producer Peter Hiscock said his program had been trying for 12 months to get a visa to visit Manus and assess the housing of asylum seekers, but had been consistently knocked back.

He said that as recently as last Friday Morauta's office denied a request for the prime minister to be interviewed on the ABC program.

Morauta said the program was "irresponsible, incompetent and dishonest journalism of the worst sort".

PNG, which has a population of about 4 million and lies directly north of Australia, was previously administered by Australia before gaining independence in 1975.




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