Vanuatu’s Phocea scandal embroils PNG hierarchy

Radio New Zealand
Conflicting accounts continue to come in about the controversial recent visit to Papua New Guinea by two Vanuatu diplomatic representatives and the country’s Foreign Minister.
PNG police and customs officials detained the passports of diplomatic representatives Pascal Anh Quan Saken and his brother Charles Henry Saken after the private jet they flew in arrived without proper clearance.
Mr Saken is the owner of the super yacht Phocea which was detained in Vanuatu in July, originally on suspicion of guns and drugs smuggling, and remains seized by the Ports Authority because it has forged documents.
Johnny Blades reports that the Phocea scandal, which continues to implicate members of Vanuatu’s Sato Kilman-led government, has also embroiled PNG’s top leadership.
Vanuatu’s government has been tight-lipped about the PNG liaison between its Foreign Minister Alfred Carlot and the two Sakens, saying it had no knowledge of their meeting.
However shortly before the chartered Boeing 737 travelled to Port Moresby’s Jackson airport, PNG officials received unusual correspondence from Vanuatu’s Ambassador to the European Union in Brussels requesting clearance for the Sakens who would be meeting Mr Carlot.
PNG Police became suspicious when the brothers, of Vietnamese ethnicity, disembarked with two large sacks, saying they would personally clean the plane.
PNG aviation authorities denied a request for crew of the 737 to sleep on board during its stopover, something which Pascal Anh Quan Saken has defended:
“The engineer and the captain wanted to stay on board because we had some technical problem, and we were not sure that in PNG we could have some assistance. And actually the sacks on board was only garbage – the handling ground staff at PNG’s airport knows about it.”
However, PNG officials decided to detain the Sakens’ passports as well as that of Mr Carlot who had also arrived in Port Moresby.
PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill says the authorities had reason to believe these people had questionable backgrounds, requiring a check.
He says the jet departed on Sunday night after an investigation by officials.
“And they concluded that they have not breached any particular laws of our country other than not getting proper clearance for the plane to land in our country. The host country that has given the diplomatic passports to these persons have requested that they be allowed to transfer through our country and of course we have no choice but to comply with that.”
But PNG’s opposition has denounced the government for allowing the Sakens transit through PNG – according to Vanuatu’s Foreign Afairs department Pascal Ahn Quan Saken is wanted by Interpol on charges of drug and arms smuggling.
The opposition leader Belden Namah claims that certain PNG cabinet ministers met the two brothers on board their plane.
But Peter O’Neill says reports in PNG media that he or other ministers met the Sakens are not true.
“Nobody is authorised to meet the people who were under investigation so I’ll be very surprised if any minister or anybody other than the public servants who are carrying out the investigation met with the subjects.”
Peter O’Neill has also rejected claims by Alfred Carlot that he visited PNG at the invitation of the PNG Government.
The Vanuatu Foreign Minister is already implicated in the Phocea affair, having faced criminal charges last year for boarding the Phocea before it received clearance from customs and immigration.
The yacht remains moored in Port Vila, where the Ports Authority has refused to release it despite repeated efforts by the Kilman government to let it go.
The suspended Director of Ports and Harbours, Morris Kaloran, says his recent removal by the government is linked to the super yacht.
“Well, they give me some reasons but I think it’s only a cover-up. The reasons that were given to me for suspension, there is no ground for it. But the suspension was, I believe, politically motivated.”
Morris Kaloran says the yacht’s registration and crew documentation remain out of order and therefore the owner or owners have a case to answer.
He says the Malta Shipping Registry has confirmed that Maltese registration for the Phocea, which was obtained last year without proof of ownership and other registration requirements, was cancelled this month.
Mr Saken denies the registration is fake and says he is the victim of a conspiracy, both in Vanutau and PNG.
“I’ve been accused of being a gangster, having firearms and drugs on board. Same story for the airplane. Come on, we have to be realistic. If you find a firearm, that is a very, very big allegation… or any illegal substance, you think that for seven months the story will last? No. It would be in court, we would be prosecuted for a very serious offence. There’s nothing of that.”
Mr Saken, who says he is the Deputy Head of Vanuatu’s Embassy in Belgium, insists his work as a diplomatic representative focussing on energy projects took him to PNG.
He says he went there to talk to the US ambassador.
“And the reason why we went to PNG is because Minister Alfred Carlot was so impressed by our work that I have done in Belgium that he wanted us to go to the USA to implement the same programme. So that’s the reason why we came to PNG – because the only place for a Vanuatu citizen to get a visa for the USA is PNG.”
However his claims to have been in touch with the US Embassy come as a surprise to the embassy.
Its spokesman Regis Prevot has also denied claims from Alfred Carlot’s camp that he went to meet the ambassador.
“Most of the thing here was about the Foreign Minister coming, meeting with the US Ambassador, and no meeting took place.”Vanuatu’s Opposition leader Edward Natapei says the government is yet to answer his questions about what business Mr Carlot had with the Sakens in PNG.
The office of Vanuatu’s Prime Minister said last year it was revoking Pascal Ahn Quan Saken’s passport but he appears to still possess it, something Mr Natapei says casts the country in a poor light.
“The real concern is that the two brothers were travelling with Vanuatu diplomatic passports. Now there’s a big question about the diplomatic passports of Vanuatu and the credibility of that and our involvement as a country with people like the Sakens who are involved in other crooked deals around the world.”
Pascal Ahn Quan Saken has not been back to Vanuatu since leaving last July before he could be questioned in relation to the yacht .
For a man whose CV claims that he owns a barely known university in Vanuatu, and that he was born on Vanuatu’s main island despite claims by the local Vietnamese community to the contrary, Mr Saken remains an enigma.
He says he may return to PNG next month to complete his unfinished business with the US embassy, something which is sure to raise more questions.