A Papua New Guinea government minister and top justice officials say they are “extremely frustrated” with Australia for harbouring a Cairns resident wanted for one of the biggest alleged frauds in the country’s legal history.
In an early test for the Albanese government’s Pacific strategy, PNG Immigration Minister Bryan Kramer and the country’s national police force have spoken out to the ABC about “unacceptable” delays in Australia’s handling of an extradition request for PNG citizen Samson Jubi.
Australia has spent 18 months considering a draft request to extradite Jubi, a Cairns resident who PNG police say is a chief suspect in a fraud case scheduled for trial in two weeks.
Jubi, a lawyer and businessman with ties to senior PNG politicians, is wanted over the alleged misappropriation of 268 million kina (AUD$117 million) from impoverished communities in the country’s Western Province.
PNG police allege he conspired to funnel the money from a trust fund set up to benefit tens of thousands of villagers affected by Australian mining giant BHP’s environmental catastrophe at the Ok Tedi mine in PNG more than 20 years ago.
ABC Investigations understands Jubi, 53, has travelled freely, flying to Singapore this month, while PNG officials have become increasingly frustrated with the stalled extradition talks.
Kramer this week cancelled Jubi’s passport, telling the ABC he would make a formal request to the Australian Border Force to deport him.
“This person is alleged to be the principal architect behind one of our largest financial crimes in our history,” said Kramer, who oversaw the case when he was the minister for police and justice.
“For him to be able to remain in Australia to avoid prosecution, it is an issue of concern … especially given Australia’s cooperation on improving governance and law enforcement, only to be falling short when making decisions about a person taking haven in Australia.
“It is unacceptable that it has taken the [Australian] attorney-general’s department up to 18 months to make a firm position on a request for an extradition, without actually saying that we have … not met the standard requirements of Australia’s legislation.
“Today, we continue to wait. That may go on for two years. It is something that we are extremely frustrated about.”
Jubi was granted Australian permanent residency more than 10 years ago.
He has been living in Cairns since leaving PNG in 2015.
ABC Investigations tracked him down to his home, where he was living with his family.
The ABC has confirmed he bought the $240,000(US$154,000) home in cash in June 2020, after the alleged fraud.
The purchase was a turnaround in fortunes for Jubi, whose previous Cairns home was repossessed five years earlier after he defaulted on a mortgage, owing ANZ Bank $296,000(US$190,000)
Jubi declined the offer of an interview or the opportunity to respond on the record to written questions, including about how he funded his Cairns property purchase.
But he fiercely maintained his innocence, claiming he was the victim of a political witch-hunt.
He said he always aimed to help the communities affected by the Ok Tedi mine disaster.
PNG’s national police force has also condemned Australia’s handling of the case, in an extraordinary public intervention into the confidential extradition talks.
In a statement to the ABC, the Royal PNG Constabulary accused Australia of undermining crucial anti-corruption work and aid spending in the Pacific, which totals nearly $500 million(US$321 million) in PNG each year.
“Australia’s apparent inability to assist in this most basic of legal processes does not sit well with its broader anti-corruption and security intentions in the region,” a statement from the Royal PNG Constabulary said.
“With all that has happened to destabilise the region in recent months, PNG authorities perhaps have a valid basis to expect a greater level of cooperation from Australia on issues relating to crime and corruption.”
The ABC understands PNG’s Attorney-General and Justice Secretary, Dr Eric Kwa, also wrote to the Australian attorney-general’s department (AGD) this year to raise concerns about the delays and stress that Australia must not be a safe haven for alleged criminals.
Kramer and the PNG police force fear the delay is hampering the upcoming fraud trial, in which some of the country’s most well-connected legal elite stand accused.
Six people are due to stand trial on fraud and money laundering charges in PNG’s National Court, including high-profile Australian barrister Greg Sheppard and Gloria Salika, the daughter of the country’s Chief Justice Sir Gibbs Salika.
Sheppard, a former Queensland Crown prosecutor, is vowing to fight the charges.
He is considered close to former PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill, who he successfully defended last year in a separate corruption trial.
The Port Moresby-based lawyer has managed and financed his children’s ARIA-award-winning Brisbane band, Sheppard.
He is also known for a 2014 undercover sting in which he was recorded on video appearing to explain how to get away with bribing leaders.
Sheppard denied advising on bribery and money laundering, saying his comments in the video were hypothetical.
Australian and PNG legal officials have been working on the draft extradition request for Jubi since March 2021, a month after a Port Moresby court first issued a warrant for his arrest.
PNG officials said the AGD advised in January that it was satisfied with the draft request, after a series of changes to meet Australia’s legal requirements.
But the ABC understands the AGD has told PNG the draft request is caught up in a legal review, holding up the issuing of any formal extradition request.
An AGD spokesperson told the ABC it was not appropriate to comment on confidential extradition discussions, but the department aimed to ensure proposed extradition requests fully complied with Australia’s legal requirements to withstand any challenge.
“The Australian government takes its international crime cooperation relationships seriously and strives to assist other countries in tackling crime where possible, while ensuring compliance with Australian law,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The Ok Tedi compensation funds have been at the centre of a political stoush for control in PNG since they were established in the late 1990s in response to one of the world’s worst mine disasters.
The copper and gold mine — which BHP co-owned with the PNG government until selling its stake in 2002 — sent hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste into the local river system in the 1980s and 90s, contaminating fish and crops, and devastating the area’s economy.
BHP and the PNG government created trust accounts in the late 1990s to compensate landowners from the mine’s profits.
But villagers and PNG leaders say none of the money has ever reached the affected communities.
The fund at the centre of Jubi’s case, the Western Province People’s Dividend Trust Fund, was managed by the PNG government until an organisation co-directed by Jubi, the Ok Tedi Fly River Development Foundation (OTFRDF), won control of it in legal bids in 2018 and 2020.
Prosecutors will allege Jubi obtained the funds by pretending to represent about 147,000 landowners in PNG’s Fly River region as the head of the foundation.
But lawyers for the OTFRDF argue the foundation legally obtained the funds through court orders, and its directors are the victims of a corrupt and politically motivated investigation.
Arrest warrants seen by the ABC allege Jubi conspired to transfer 268 million Kina to accounts held by the OTFRDF and Mr Sheppard’s law firm, Young & Williams, between 2018 and 2020.
The warrants allege he received a total of Kina 5 million (AUD$2.2 million) into his personal bank account.
In a pre-trial statement to the National Court, prosecutors allege the OTFRDF approved “extraordinary legal fees” with no invoices to justify them and made payments to Sheppard’s firm and a company owned by Jubi to disguise “kickbacks or unlawful payments”.
The defence alleges the prosecution is an abuse of process, claiming the investigators and arresting officers received bribes to target the OTFRDF.
Those allegations are yet to be tested in court.
Jubi and Sheppard have found powerful allies, including PNG’s former opposition leader Belden Namah, who has accused Prime Minister James Marape of condoning a corrupt investigation.”
The trial is scheduled to begin in PNG’s National Court on October 11, 2022.