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Veteran Papua New Guinea PM steps down for tribunal

Source:  Copyright 2010, Agence France-Presse
Date:  December 14, 2010
Original URL: Status DEAD

Papua New Guinea's veteran Prime Minister Michael Somare has stepped down so he can face a tribunal over allegations of official misconduct against him, his office told AFP on Tuesday.

Somare, 74, a dominant figure in Pacific politics since the 1970s, decided to "voluntarily step aside" so a leadership tribunal can hear allegations he failed to lodge annual financial statements in the 1990s.

"The PM respects the due processes and will continue to avail himself to hearings," his office said in a statement issued late Monday.

Recently appointed Deputy Prime Minister Sam Abal will assume the role of prime minister for the duration of the tribunal. Somare's aides have dismissed the investigation as politically motivated.

Somare stepped aside after his lawyers failed to stop the public prosecutor from advising the country's chief justice to set up a leadership tribunal to hear the claims.

Somare said he was the victim of a "gross injustice" because he had been unable to find a judge available to hear his application for an injunction against the tribunal.

"While the supreme court has yet to give the PM an opportunity to be heard on his reference the public prosecutor has proceeded to make a referral," his office said in the statement.

Somare, one of the Asia-Pacific region's longest-serving leaders, was PNG's first prime minister after independence in 1975 and was re-elected in 1982, 2002 and 2007.

He has courted controversy, earning neighbouring Australia's wrath in 2006 when he ignored an extradition request for then-Solomon Islands attorney general Julian Moti to face child sex charges.

His stepping aside marks the climax of two weeks of high political drama in resources-rich Papua New Guinea in which the cabinet was suddenly reshuffled and the supreme court ruled that the re-election of the country's governor-general was invalid.

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