HELEN DAVIDSON | Guardian Australia
The warrants were deemed invalid because the legislation they were based upon was repealed in 2000, principal magistrate Lawrence Kangwia ruled, according to the Post-Courier newspaper.
However, Mr Kangwia said investigators were free to reapply for new ones and he refused an application to dismiss the entire complaint against the men.
“What is of serious concern is that the documents that were legally flawed and absolutely void could have been executed as arrest warrants, thereby depriving the liberty of the applicants,” Kangwia said.
The warrants for the arrest of Mr O’Neill, treasurer Don Polye and finance minister James Marape were reportedly issued by a PNG district court to an investigator from the national fraud and anti-corruption directorate, but were not produced until Monday.
“I welcome the court’s decision in finding the warrants defective and setting them aside. That is what I maintained and that is why our lawyers went to court,” said Mr O’Neill on Friday.
The warrants related to investigations into alleged illegal government payments of more than $30m made to a Port Moresby law firm.
O’Neill questioned the jurisdiction of the directorate and accused “rogue” police officers of working at the behest of opposition leader Belden Namah in an attempt to overthrow the government, an accusation Mr Namah denied.
Mr Namah gave PNG police 72 hours to execute the warrants before he instigated court proceedings against them, but on Tuesday prime minister Mr O’Neill successfully obtained an injunction.
Mr O’Neill also said he had asked the police commissioner to launch an investigation into the issuing of the warrants, claiming the investigation was under the umbrella of the cross-agency national corruption inquiry, Task Force Sweep.
The district court on Friday found police officers and the magistrate involved in the application and issuing of the warrants did not abuse any processes.
The chairman of Task Force Sweep, Sam Koim, distanced the taskforce from the warrants, saying they were a matter for the police.
Jenny Hayward-Jones, the director of the Myer Foundation Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, told Guardian Australia that Namah had a “long tradition of these kind of stunts”.
“He frequently reverts to the courts and launches challenges … in order to attempt to destabilise or disrupt,” she said.
Mr O’Neill’s prompt and strong reaction suggests he’s working hard to keep up public confidence in his administration, Hayward-Jones said.
“O’Neill himself has admitted that he’s not completely squeaky clean but he’s always said he’s not guilty of the big things he’s been accused of and he will be trying hard to protect that image as well.”
The scandal around the arrest warrants against three of the highest holders of government positions threatens to derail PNG’s liquid natural gas project, Trade Union Congress general secretary John Paska told the Post Courier.
“Make no mistake, this has the potential of ripping the rudder out of ship PNG. That is how serious this is. Of particular concern to us is the fact that we are on the verge of hitting the big time with respect to the LNG project and other development initiatives,” Mr Paska said.
However, Ms Hayward-Jones said while instability could create fear and doubt among investors, those involved in the LNG project are “very used to political instability in PNG” and build it into their planning.
“It may unsettle Exxon Mobil a little but they are pretty experienced now and I don’t think they would derail anything,” she said.
A spokeswoman from Exxon Mobil told Guardian Australia the projects were continuing and there was no concern over the latest instability.
Ms Hayward-Jones said the main issue was that while the leaders were “focused on protecting themselves they’re not focused on running the country”.