Injunction comes after after police open fire on students demonstrating against prime minister Peter O’Neill
The students’ simmering five-week protest demanding the resignation of Peter O’Neill over corruption allegations reached a brutal zenith on Wednesday, when students tried to board buses on campus to travel to Parliament House – where parliament was sitting – to protest and to present a petition to the PM.
Armed police blocked the students’ path and then opened fire, reportedly using live rounds.
Video shows dozens of shots ringing out, as students flee from the protest. Smoke rises from the area and students can be heard screaming.
The PNG government says five students were wounded – other sources put the number as high as 15 – in the clash and denies anyone was killed by the officers.
Opposition MPs told parliament that four people had been killed but no deaths have been confirmed.
Grant Muddle, the chief executive of Port Moresby General Hospital, said there were no deaths at his hospital, or people brought to the hospital already dead.
“We have so far received a total of eight gunshot wound casualties. All eight were stabilised and admitted at the hospital.”
A further 16 people, including a primary school student, were treated for injuries sustained in the protest violence.
One student activist described the actions of police who opened fire on a group of university students as an ambush.
“The police ordered them to move out of the bus, pulled them down and then they said ‘you’re not going to Parliament’ and then it was like ambush,” the People’s Power Movement leader, Noel Anjo, said. “They were assaulting and firing at them.”
The police commissioner, Gary Baki, said it was the students’ fault the protest had turned violent.
“They came out on to the road and prevented the police to perform their duties, which resulted in this incident that has taken place and it is unfortunate that students have been injured in the course of this incident.”
The unrest spread across the university campus, the capital and the country. University dorms were set alight at the University of PNG, mothers marched in the streets of PNG, their faces daubed with mud for mourning, and an angry crowd spontaneously gathered outside the hospital where the injured students were taken.
A mob armed with machetes tried to burn down a police barracks, according to the police commissioner.
In PNG’s second-largest city, Lae, students at the University of Technology set alight government cars.
Extra police, including recruits from police college, have been stationed across Port Moresby to quell further outbreaks of violence. The University of PNG sought, and won, a court injunction preventing students protesting and boycotting classes.
For more than a month, students at the University of PNG have boycotted classes and protested over historical corruption allegations levelled against O’Neill.
O’Neill has been accused by PNG police’s Taskforce Sweep of acting corruptly in allegedly authorised the payment of $30m of fraudulent legal bills to the law firm Paul Paraka.
A warrant for O’Neill’s arrest on corruption charges was issued in 2014 but the prime minister has taken extraordinary steps to avoid it.
O’Neill sacked a number of high-level public servants and ministers, including the police commissioner and attorney general, and disbanded Taskforce Sweep. He also gained court injunctions against aspects of the warrant.
The national police’s anti-corruption unit was shut down earlier this year, just as it was about to question O’Neill. A judge since ordered it be reopened but the police force was split when supporters of the police commissioner barricaded the unit’s office to prevent its reopening.
O’Neill has been defiant in response. He says the charges against him are politically motivated and that will not stand down while they are investigated. He told parliament Wednesday “everyone in this country is innocent until proven guilty”.
In a statement issued Wednesday night, he said the “blood of the injured students” was on the hands of politicians and “criminal elements” who had supported the protests and that students who had spent weeks protesting and calling for his resignation would now have to “face the consequences of their low grades”.
The protestors, however, say they will continue to resist. They say their demonstrations are broader than just targeting the prime minister but are against a ruling elite they regard as deeply and systemically corrupt.
“We are fed up with the government, we are fed up with the police,” Anjo said. “We’re mourning, we’re mourning for our country because our country is sinking,”
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