PNG's top judge arrested in new political crisis

PORT MORESBY Thu May 24, 2012 6:43am EDT

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PORT MORESBY (Reuters) - Police in Papua New Guinea stormed the Supreme Court in the capital and arrested the nation's top judge on sedition charges on Thursday, in response to its ruling that the prime minister held power illegally and should step down.

On the day nominations closed for June elections, police arrested Chief Justice Salamo Injia after the court ruled former leader Michael Somare should be reinstated as prime minister.

Somare and Prime Minister Peter O'Neill have been jostling for power since August 2011, when O'Neill took office after Somare was ruled ineligible to be a lawmaker after a prolonged absence from parliament due to illness.

But the Supreme Court in December ruled Somare should be reinstated, and in another ruling this week the court said Somare should be the caretaker prime minister during the current election period.

O'Neill and his deputy Belden Namah have refused to accept the court ruling, accusing the judges of bias and demanding they resign, extending a prolonged feud with the judiciary.

Namah led armed police who arrived at the court as Injia started hearing a case on Thursday, forcing the judge to run to his secure chambers, where he remained holed up for several hours.

In a brief statement, he told reporters he would not be forced out of his job. "I've done nothing wrong. I will not resign," he said.

Injia was charged with sedition late on Thursday, and was released on bail. He was due to appear in court on Friday.

The dramatic development comes after months of political uncertainty in Papua New Guinea, a resource-rich and often volatile nation of around 6.5 million people where 85 percent live a subsistence life in tropical villages.

O'Neill, who has the support of the majority of PNG's lawmakers, has attempted to recall parliament to deal with the latest court finding, but he has failed to muster a quorum three days in a row. Most lawmakers are in their electorates campaigning for the elections.

Somare, meanwhile, has written to PNG's media, warning they could be held in contempt if they do not recognize him as the legitimate prime minister.

Somare has also twice attempted to visit the country's governor-general to be sworn in as caretaker prime minister, in line with the Supreme Court rulings, but the titular head of state has refused to intervene.

PNG has vast mineral resources but struggles to pass on the benefits to its people. U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil is developing a $15.7 billion liquefied natural gas plant in PNG, the country's biggest-ever resource project.

(Writing by James Grubel; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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