Gamato arrest highlights troubled PNG election

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A matter at the heart of the arrest of Papua New Guinea’s Electoral Commissioner reflects how flawed the 2017 general election was, according to a former candidate.

Papua New Guinea's Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato

Papua New Guinea’s Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato
Photo: RNZI/Johnny Blades

The commissioner, Patilias Gamato, was arrested on Friday and charged with corruption, money laundering and conspiracy. This was confirmed by police commander of PNG’s National Capital District-Central, Acting Assistant Commissioner Anthony Wagambie Jr.

He said Mr Gamato’s arrest stemmed from ongoing fraud investigations into a case of official corruption involving the election manager for the National Capital District, Terence Hetinu, in 2017.

Mr Hetinu and another electoral official were arrested on 27 June, 2017 after police said they were found with US$57,000 (184,300 kina) in cash and marked ballot papers.

The incident delayed polling in the capital, and prompted Mr Gamato to sack the officials. At the time, the commissioner told media that the cash recovered from Mr Hetinu was intended for camping allowances for election officials working in the capital. Mr Wagambie said this claim was now the subject of this ongoing investigation.

A report by the Australian National University found that in the 2017 general election, electoral misbehaviour and malfeasance, facilitated in large part by the poor state of the electoral roll, proved more widespread and brazen than ever before, and was linked to many instances of violence.

Papua New Guinea national election 2017.

Papua New Guinea national election 2017.
Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Speaking today about the Hetinu incident, the runner-up in the National Capital District seat in 2017, Andy Bawa, said that right across the country, the election was marred by irregularities and signs of unfairness from the start.

“At the eve of the elections to have such a huge amount of money in cash being carried around by an election official, or someone high up there, became of serious concern to most of us, and a concern that was, eventually, brought before the attention of the police.”

Mr Bawa, who is a former metropolitan police commander in PNG’s capital, said the incident proved very disruptive to polling.

“In my previous capacity as [National Capital Metropolitan Superintendent], such a very high sensitive and serious allegation like that would have been dealt with at the time. To have taken two years, I’d say it’s weird.”

Mr Wagambie said detectives probing the case obtained a warrant to have the electoral commissioner arrested and charged so as to have him face court and explain the origins of the cash recovered from Mr Hetinu in 2017.

PNG Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato under pressure at a media conference

Mr Gamato came under intense media scrutiny during the 2017 general elections due to widespread problems around polling.
Photo: RNZI Johnny Blades

Although Mr Wagambie said police bail was refused because the defendant was arrested by court warrant, Mr Gamato was released from police custody on a $US860 (K3,000) bail after reportedly seeking the assistance of a magistrate through his lawyer.

When contacted this morning by RNZ Pacific, Mr Gamato declined to make a public comment on the case since it was now a matter before court.

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