Policemen Jailed for Preventing Prime Minister O’Neill’s Arrest

Three career police officers are currently languishing in Bomana prison, locked up by the courts for the role they played in protecting the then Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, from arrest in 2014 over allegations he personally authorised the payment of K71 million by the State to Paraka lawyers.

While ultimately O’Neill successfully dodged the Paraka scandal by disbanding his own anti-corruption watchdog, Task Force Sweep, and by launching a series of legal challenges, for a few tense month in the middle of 2014 O’Neill’s political future appeared to hang in the balance as he was pursued by officers from the National Fraud squad.

When O’Neill initially refused to submit to police questioning, the courts issued a warrant for his arrest.

Fortunately for O’Neill he had powerful allies in the police force. Pitched against the police fraud squad, as they sought the Prime Minister’s arrest, was their own Police Commissioner and the Armed Robbery Response Unit (ARRU).

It was the ARRU which was deployed to physically prevented the fraud squad from serving the arrest warrant on the Prime Minister.

When the National Court then issued contempt charges against members of the ARRU for frustrating the execution of the warrant, officers from the unit tried to take the law into their own hands. It was a decision that ultimately had disastrous consequences for the careers of three of their number and their innocent families.

Most notably Constable Tony Kande, Senior Constable Henry Naio and First Constable Wilson Muka have recently been sentenced to five-and-a-half years jail cumulatively, for attempting to obstruct the course of justice.

Their behaviour was described by the judge as ‘the most serious instance of the offence’ as she imposed the maximum sentences allowed, two-years jail, on two of the three officers.

The charges stemmed from the angry and violent response of the three officers after a police team led by Sergeant Patrick Premenga from the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate tried to serve the contempt charges on officers from the ARRU.

On 19 October 2014, the court observes, police officers Tony Kande, Henry Naio and Wilson Muka, along with Sergeant Pokop and a number of other members of the Armed Robbery Response Unit, violently attacked Sergeant Patrick Premenga.

It was a Sunday evening and Sergeant Premenga was at home with his family. Inside the house was Premenga with his two daughters, the youngest was seven-years old. Their mother was outside with their neighbours, her young brother was also in the house.

According to the evidence accepted in court by the judge, the ARRU squad arrived at Premenga’s home at around 7.30pm in three vehicles. One vehicle blocked the driveway while the other two parked on the road outside. It was dark outside and armed officers shouted at neighbours to go back inside their homes and turn off their lights.

Five officers ‘stormed up the stairs’ to the veranda and called for Premenga to come outside.

When Premenga came to his door the police told him they were going to kill him. Kande, who was drunk, punched Premenga hard in the face while Pokop pointed an M16 rifle at him.

Kande then pointed a hand gun at Premenga’s face and pulled the trigger. Fortunately the gun failed to fire. Kande then pointed the gun in the air and fired a bullet into the ceiling.

At trial, Kande narrowly escaped a conviction for attempted murder, the judge giving the benefit of the doubt whether, in his drunken state, he had been merely negligent in pulling the trigger the first time, and noting that once the gun had successfully fired, Kande did not fire again at Premenga.

Another shot was fired though, this time from an M16 rifle into the rear tyre of Premenga’s police issued vehicle. Shortly afterwards the offending police officers drove away from the scene.

In the aftermath of the attack on Premenga, the contempt charges issued against the members of the ARRU by the National Court were never served on them.

The court found that each of the offenders had threatened Sergeant Premenga with the intention of stopping or hindering the service of contempt charges on members of the ARRU and this amounted to obstructing the course of justice. Sergeant Pokop was not on trial as he had since passed away.

Prior to sentencing each of the defendants made a formal statement to the the court apologising for their actions.

Each officer blamed their actions on the division caused in the police force by the actions of Prime Minister O’Neill and his Police Commissioner who had ordered them to prevent the Prime Minister’s arrest by members of the National Fraud Squad acting on behalf of Task Force Sweep.

This ‘divided the police force into two groups thereby causing infighting among us resulting in this incident [the attack on Sergeant Premenga]’.

Indeed, the convicted officers went so far as to claim they were victims themselves of the ‘top level politics with politicians and bureaucrats’ just as was the late Sergeant Premenga (he passed away shortly after the trial and before sentencing of his former colleagues).

The officers, they said, were only following the orders of their superior officers.

Such arguments were dismissed by the sentencing judge:

“regardless of any infighting within the Constabulary, it was not for the offenders to take the law into their own hands… As long serving police officers the offenders would have appreciated that better than anyone”.

The judge also noted that not only is the offence of attempting to obstruct the course of justice a ‘very serious offence because it constitutes an attack on the system of justice itself’, the gravity of the offending in this case was particularly egregious:

The essential reason that the offence in this case is so serious is that it was committed by serving police officers whose sworn duty it is to uphold the law, and serve and protect the course of justice. Moreover, the offenders attempted to obstruct the course of contempt proceedings instituted by the National Court of this country, in relation to very serious allegations concerning the frustration of attempts to serve a warrant of arrest on the serving Prime Minister. What is more, the proceedings they attempted to frustrate were against themselves and/or their fellow officers.”

“In addition, the offending involved serious threats of violence. It was committed at night, and in the company of others. It was not spur of the moment and it was not short-lived. It affected not just the complainant, but took place at his home, in the presence of his family. It involved the use of firearms, one of which was pointed at the head of CS Premenga before it discharged into the ceiling. The experience for all concerned must have been terrifying.”

Despite the officers’ long police service, totalling 54-years between them, and the young children and extended families who depend upon them, the court said it was duty bound to impose sentences that properly reflected the seriousness of the offending and ‘the matters in mitigation are far outweighed by the matters in aggravation’.

Both Tony Kande, who the court found was the most aggressive and threatened the victim with a gun to his head, and Henry Naio who was not himself armed but was an active participant and urged the others on, each received the maximum permitted penalty of two-years imprisonment. Wilson Muka was sentenced to eighteen months prison.

The case offers a salient reminder that while those at the very pinnacle of power have a vast array of resources they can deploy to insulate themselves from the rule of law, those lower in rank who blindly serve political masters rather than the public good are far more likely to be punished.