The Papua New Guinea Government has deported a Catholic missionary after he tried to help villagers who were taking legal action against a giant Malaysian logging company. Source: ABC News
Lawyer Doug Tennent had been working as the administrator of the Catholic Archdiocese of Rabaul, which included dealing with legal issues relating to traditional land ownership in the East New Britain Province.
He was arrested by immigration officials on June 9 and flown to New Zealand on June 12.
Mr Tennent said the immigration officers accused him of breaching visa conditions.
“Basically there was a letter from Immigration accompanying those saying that I blatantly abused my visa conditions as a religious worker by becoming involved in sensitive land issues in the East New Britain Province,” he said.
“I was dumfounded because as the administrator of the archdiocese, over 80% of my work is dealing with land issues and land, by virtue of land in Melanesia, it is always a very sensitive issue.”
Mr Tennent is a former law lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea and a long-time lay missionary who has spent 30 years working in PNG and the Solomon Islands.
The church obtained a stay order against Mr Tennent’s deportation, but immigration officers ignored it and put him on a plane out of the country.
Mr Tennent said he was denied access to his phone, denied contact with a lawyer and denied the right to appeal.
“The whole process of not being able to communicate, despite the fact I was told both in Kokopo and in Moresby that I can do that, makes me feel very bad, and I think there’s been a clear denial of due process,” he said.
The Archbishop of Rabaul, Francesco Panfilo, said Mr Tennent was working on important church projects relating to the handback of land and freeing up land for affordable housing.
“[The allegations] seem to be that he went beyond his religious worker status,” he said. “He is working for the Archdiocese of Rabaul, any work for justice and peace is part of our mission.”
Mr Tennent had been working closely with local authorities to resolve land disputes and enjoyed a good relationship with the PNG Government. But then the Archbishop asked Mr Tennent to help him advocate for villagers from the remote Pomio district of East New Britain, who were trying negotiate a new lease deal with the giant Malaysian logging company Rimbunan Hijau, or RH.
Archbishop Panfilo said problems began when the villagers lodged legal proceedings against the company.
“After this action was done here is where probably RH was shocked that they were brought to court,” he said. “So I believe he is the victim because they [the PNG Government] cannot deport the Archbishop, because that would be probably too much.”
Rimbunan Hijau’s logging and oil palm project in Pomio has been the subject of ongoing complaints and protests by some of the villagers, who say the landowner companies which leased the forest to the RH committed fraud.
RH accesses the land under a much-criticised arrangement known as a Special Agricultural Business Lease, or SABL.
PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill ordered all such leases be revoked last year, but operations at the project and many other such leases around the country are continuing.
Archbishop Franceso Panfilo says the affected villagers were desperate for the company to renegotiate the agreement so that some of their traditional lands are protected from logging.
“The greatest majority of people, they want RH to have a new lease agreement, because the existing lease arrangement, what is called the SABL, is unjust and unfair to the landowners,” he said.
The ABC has sought comment from Rimbunan Hijau and the PNG Government about Mr Tennent’s deportation, but is yet to receive a response.