PNG prime minister denies connection to suitcase full of cash found as voting starts

Papua New Guinea’s prime minister James Marape has denied any connection to a suitcase containing PGK1.56m (AU$650,000) in cash that police found in Hela province, just as voting in the country’s election was about to start.

Mospal Marape, the son of the prime minister, James Marape, was arrested after being found allegedly travelling with a man carrying a suitcase full of cash totalling PGK1.56m (AU$650,000) to Hela province, where voting in the country’s election kicked off this week.

Mospal Marape confirmed to the Guardian that he was brought to the police station for questioning, but released some hours later and allowed to go and vote on Monday, the first day of voting in Papua New Guinea. No charges were laid.

Prime minister Marape said his son had not been involved in the transportation of the money and the situation had “nothing to do with me”.

“He was not in the plane carrying the money. He was not part of the team that was carrying the money. It was a complete isolated matter from another person who was transporting the money who happened to be director of the company. Nothing to do with me. My son had no input in the transportation of the money. He was in the vicinity,” the prime minister told the Guardian.

Mospal Marape was arrested alongside Sethy Palipe also from Hela Province and the managing director of Ipwenz Construction Company, a local construction company responsible for multi million-dollar projects in the country. A representative from the company said that the money was to be used for a road project.

Jerry Manda, spokesperson for Ipwenz Construction Company said in a statement that rumours circulating that the money was for the elections was “wrong and fake”. “The money is for improvement payment for Nipa Ambua Road project. It’s not the first time for Ipwenz to withdraw such amount of money for construction purposes.” He added that given Ipwenz ran 100m kina projects, the 1.56m in the suitcase was “not a big money”.

A police officer involved in the arrest, who was not authorised to speak on the record said police received a tip-off about the transportation of the money.

“We stop[ped] and search[ed] the car and the alleged driver was protective of his suitcase so when we searched we found large amount of cash,” the officer said. “We had to question and detained them for a few hours and then [we released] them with the cash as they had a valid reason so we could not charge them.”

Voting in Papua New Guinea’s national election kicked off on Monday, and will continue for three weeks. A result is expected by the end of July.

There are concerns about election-related violence in PNG. So far at least 30 people have been killed in election-related violence since May. Before the 2017 election, more than 200 people died during campaigning, polling, counting.

The election this year pits prime minister Marape against former prime minister Peter O’Neill. Marape served as O’Neill’s finance minister before resigning in 2019. After a month-long tussle for power, O’Neill resigned as prime minister and Marape took over.

He came to power promising to crack down on corruption and revitalise the economy, promising to make PNG the “richest black Christian nation” on earth. While his government succeeded in introducing reforms in the country’s lucrative mining and resource industries, a continuing lack of economic opportunities in the intervening years – which include the Covid pandemic – have caused huge frustration among many voters.

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