The Untouchables: Yama Family Deja Vu

In nearly every nation examples can be found where the rich and powerful seem to be able to evade justice. Papua New Guinea is certainly not immune to this disease, as the Yama family demonstrate.

In 2018, Madang Governor and political heavyweight Peter Yama dodged electoral bribery charges, despite the two officials who received a ‘corrupt gratification’ from him being convicted and sentenced to nine-months imprisonment.

The courts have ordered steps be taken to correct this egregious injustice. However, it is now three-years since the 2017 election and Peter Yama has yet to face court.

This is not though an isolated case. Peter Yama appears to have evaded police investigation and prosecution on a number of occasions. PNGi can also reveal that the same untouchability seemingly extends to other members of his family.

A recent Supreme court decision exposes how police pursued and prosecuted an Australian businessman for allegedly cashing a forged cheque for K957,000 and laundering the proceeds. However, no action was taken against his business partner who supplied the cheque and made off with K700,000 from the proceeds. At trial it was not disputed that that business partner was Peter Yama’s eldest son, Emmanuel Yama.

While the Australian, Peter Mayoh, was sentenced to nine-years jail for his role in the fraud, Emmanuel has never been charged. Indeed, there is no evidence he has even been interviewed by police.

This lack of police action seems to stand in contrast to events in 2018, when Emmanuel was charged with assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest and being in possession of an unlicensed firearm. But PNGi has been unable to find any evidence that this matter has ever been brought to trial either.

It is perhaps ironic that Police Minister, and previously noted anti-corruption crusader, Bryan Kramer, is the Member of Parliament for the same Madang electorate that ‘The Untouchable’ Yama’s call home.

Key facts

What does a New Zealand judge, a high-profile politician, his son, and a cheque for K957,000 all have in common?

The question might sound like the first line of a convoluted joke, but the failure of police and prosecutors to include these four in evidence led to a serious miscarriage of justice for Australian businessman Ralph Mayoh, according to the Supreme Court.

The key facts presented at the original trial were that Mayoh was given a cheque for K957,000 by his business partner Manu Yama, the son of Madang Governor Peter Yama.

The cheque appeared to be from Vetco Aibel (PNG) Limited, the PNG subsidiary of an Australian company.

Manu asked Mayoh to pay the cheque into a company account belonging to Mayoh, and then give K700,000 in cash back to Manu.

Mayoh duly deposited the cheque at the ANZ bank. The bank processed the cheque and credited Mayoh’s company account.

Mayoh then withdrew K707,000 in cash and gave K700,000 to Yama.

Vetco Aibel (PNG) Limited then claimed the cheque was a forgery. Mayoh was arrested and charged for using a false cheque and money laundering.

At trial, neither Manu Yama or Jeffrey Shephard were called to give evidence. Shephard was the locally based director of Vetco Aibel and the authorised cheque signatory – he is now a National and Supreme Court judge.

ANZ couldn’t produce the cheque to show whether it was a forgery or not as it has been ‘lost’. There was also no explanation of how a forged cheque was processed and cleared without being detected.

Despite these rather obvious gaps in the prosecution case, Mayoh was found guilty on the two charges and sentenced to nine years jail.

Six years later, the Supreme court has now overturned the convictions. It says there were ‘critical missing links on the question of whether forgery was committed and whether the appellant knew about it’. Therefore, the convictions were unsafe.

It is also critical of the failure of the prosecution to produce Manu Yama as a witness.

The detail - Peter Mayoh v The State

In September 2013, a 59 year-old Australian businessman, Ralph Mayoh, was convicted of fraud and money laundering and later sentenced to nine years jail.

It was alleged he had deposited a forged cheque for K957,370 into his company account (Powa Construction Limited) and 10 days later withdrew K707,000 in cash.

The cheque, No.1972, was drawn on a bank account held in the name of Vetco Aibel (PNG) Limited.

It was alleged neither Mr Mayoh or his company, Powa Construction Limited, had ever done any work for Vetco Aibel.

It was also claimed by police that the genuine cheque No.1972 was never issued by Vetco Aibel and remained unused in the company’s head office in Western Australia.

It was also established that Vetco Aibel (PNG) Limited had changed its name in 2007 to Aibel Limited and was not trading in 2010 when the cheque was drawn on its account.

Therefore, it was claimed the cheque deposited by Mr Mayoh must have been a forgery and that he must have known the K707,000 he withdrew was the proceeds from that forgery.

On appeal Mr Mayoh’s conviction was overturned. The appeal court found there were a number of glaring omissions in the police case that undermined any finding of guilt.

Firstly, the cheque deposited by Mr Mayoh, which the prosecution deemed a forgery, was never produced as evidence. The court was told the cheque had been mislaid by ANZ bank.

Second, there was no explanation given as to why the ANZ bank processed and cleared the allegedly forged cheque and then transferred K957,370 from the account of Vetco Aibel (PNG) Limited, a company that had changed its name and ceased operating three-years earlier, into the account of Powa Construction Limited.

Thirdly, the local company director of Aibel Limited was not called to give evidence, despite the fact he could have attested to never signing the cheque. That director was not named by the Supreme Court, but according to IPA records he is the New Zealand born lawyer and now National Court judge, Jeffery Shephard.

A second overseas based director of Aibel Limited, the Australian Michael Horsfall, did though give evidence by video link from Perth. He attested that the genuine cheque No.1972 had never been used and was still in the cheque book which was in the company office in Australia.

Fourthly, there was no evidence presented to the court to show where the cheque that was deposited at the ANZ bank came from, or how it was possible to produce a duplicate cheque that could fool bank staff.

There was another key witness that never appeared as part of the prosecution case. Manu Yama, the controversial son of veteran politician and Madang governor, Peter Yama.

Mr Mayoh told police in his formal interview that the cheque No.1972 had been given to him by Manu Yama; this was not disputed by the prosecution.

Mr Mayoh told police, Manu Yama had approached him and asked him if he could deposit the cheque into his company account. After showing the cheque to his accountant for advise on any tax implications, Mr Mayoh agreed.

Mr Mayoh told police that as Manu Yama was a trusted friend and business partner he had no reason to suspect the cheque was a forgery. Indeed, Mayoh, Manu Yama and Manu’s sibling, Michaela, were at that time partners in two businesses, Mikwila Timber Trading and Bilum Kopi.

Manu Yama was not called on by the prosecution to answer the obvious question of where he got the cheque from.

Mr Mayoh also told police he thought that cheque had been given to Manu by his father, Peter Yama. Yama had recently been awarded K11 million in a successful court case.

The appeal court noted that as Manu Yama is a member of a wealthy family, it was possible that Mr Mayoh would think that a cheque for K950,000 was genuine.

Further, the court noted, there was no evidence to support the contention that Mr Mayoh knew about Aibel Limited and its operations. He ‘may have thought it was a company owned by Peter Yama and the cheque had been drawn by him for his son’, said the appeal court.

At trial, Mr Mayoh also claimed Manu Yama had told him he did not have any banking facilities in Madang and that was why he was asking for help.

This ‘amplified the need to call Manu Yama as a witness’ said the Supreme Court.

“If he [Manu Yama] had given evidence, the trial judge would have had a glimpse of his character, his personality and his intelligence.  He could be an honest man.  He could be the greatest con artist.  The cheque came from him so he would have explained how he managed to transnationally obtain cheque number 1972 and how he got the appellant involved.  It seems that his absence has prejudiced the appellant’s defence.”

The Supreme Court was also critical of the fact that the prosecution did not present any evidence from the bank officers who processed and cleared the cheque.

“The cheque clearance is prima facie evidence that it was not forged.  The cheque going missing suggests that there may have been a conspiracy to defraud somebody by the bank officers and Manu Yama. The extent of their involvement in any conspiracy could not be ascertained if and unless the bank officers gave evidence or were arrested and charged.”

“With so many loose ends, so many questions unanswered, we are not sure that the appellant’s guilt is the only reasonable conclusion” and “there are critical missing links on the question of whether forgery was committed and whether the appellant knew about the forgery, if any”.

The Supreme Court therefore found the conviction of Mr Mayoh to be unsafe, upheld his appeal, quashed his conviction, refunded his bail money and discharged him.

The (almost) Untouchable Peter Yama

Mr Yama is a long-term politician and a serial litigator whose murky past has previously featured in a five-part investigation published by PNGi.

That exposé revealed that Yama has seemingly evaded police investigation and criminal charges on a number of occasions. Indeed, in 2010, the senior Australian journalist Rowan Callick described Yama as the ‘policeman turned security godfather turned politician’ who appears ‘untouchable, capable of pulling strings in every quarter’.

In 2004, when the Supreme Court found company records produced in a court case filed by Peter Yama were forged, it recommended the matter be referred to the police for further investigation.

Similarly, in 2009, the Commission of Inquiry into the Department of Finance recommended Peter Yama be referred to the police for making ‘an unlawful claim’. 

There is no evidence on the public record the police ever followed up on either matter.

This stands in stark contrast to events in 2013, when Peter Yama was convicted for threatening to kill police officers in a fracas outside the Madang court house (which, incidentally, was also related to a election vote count).

At his trial in this matter, several police officers gave evidence that Yama had threatened to kill them. One of them testified that Peter Yama had said ‘if anything goes wrong, you Ramu Police will be the first guys to be held responsible. I got some high-powered firearms, which I will use to shoot you’.  Yama did not deny the accusations and was sentenced to six months jail.

In Manu Yama’s case it seems doubtful he will even see the inside of a court house, given police failures to date.