On his way back home from Port Moresby to Verona in Italy during a stopover in Singapore, Dr Albert Schram wrote a lengthy article on his scarifying experiences in Papua New Guinea. It provides a detailed background and analysis of what befell him when he ran foul of powerful political players. You can read here the original blog piece, from which this extensive extract is drawn – Keith Jackson of PNG Attitude
Now that I have safely left Papua New Guinea, I feel free to write about what happened and was not reported in the national media.
As Vice-Chancellor (President) for the PNG University of Technology (Unitech) appointed for two terms, I worked with seven Ministers of Higher Education, and three different Chancellors.
My achievements in this period speak for themselves. Most significantly, after an independent account went over all the university accounts, we achieved an unqualified, clean audit report by the Auditor-General for the first time in over two decades, and became one of the handful of agencies with this distinction.
This has been my commitment to the Unitech community from the outset.
We completed 13 major infrastructure projects on campus, restored the reputation of the university internationally by signing 23 agreements. This allowed us to send 77 Papua New Guineans abroad for training of which 27 for doctoral programs, of a total of about 150.
Despite [an] active internationalisation and professional accreditation strategy which required our presence elsewhere, we sent over 10,000 emails per year, chaired over 60 meetings on campus per year, spent each year over eight months on campus and in country.
To be accused by former colleagues of being dishonest, lazy and incompetent is truly bizarre in the light of these facts. Might does not make right, and a lie does not become true the more you repeat it.
The five years I was on campus, however, there were four attempts to dismiss me, an almost yearly exercise. The first time was for disclosing confidential information, then for “false pretence”, then for inciting ethnic tensions, and finally again for false pretence.
This last time, after receiving an infamous catalogues of bizarre and baseless allegations, we decided we had enough, and when the council’s lawyer came with a proposal to settle the matter, I accepted this on 18 April 2018.
On 1 May 2018, while returning to the country on a tourist visa, I was detained at Jacksons airport in Port Moresby, not while attempting to exit the country as reported by the media.
The police took my passport to assure I would turn up for an interview at the police station the next day, but then refused to return it and did not charge me with any crime within 24 hours as is required. Police practices in the country have been reason for concern, as can be seen in the recent report of Human Rights Watch.
The next day, May 2, the Honorary Consul of the Netherlands, Stan Joyce, came personally to demand the return of my passport which by international law must occur within 24 hours. The police waited him out, and held on to my passport until they charged me on May 7 for “false pretence”, alleging I had presented a false doctorate with the purpose of obtaining employment in the country.
The incident has caused a stir in the international press, most notably in The Australian and in The Times Higher Education in the UK, a leading industry publication. Prof Stephen Howes, who is one of the leaders in the academic collaboration between Australia and PNG, wrote: “These developments are outrageous, damaging, and scary”. In my home town in Verona, Italy, it was even front page news.
Verification of academic credentials
Supposedly only the production of an original doctorate would prove my innocence. The verification of academic credentials, however, never rests on the production of an original, but always involves direct communication with the originating university and higher education agencies in the country. I produced a certified copy for the police which was sent directly sent to the Honorary Consul of the Netherlands [in PNG].
The current secretary of the Department of Higher Education and his predecessor went through a rigorous verification process communicating by email, by speaking to the [European] university and communicating with the professor members of the thesis committee who were present during my thesis defence. This should have put the matter to rest, but instead confusion was allowed to prevail.
Some journalists contacted these same professors, and in fact I published in 2014 one of their emails on this blog hoping that would be the last word on the issue. My book was also published by Cambridge University Press in 1997, which is based on my doctoral thesis from 1994.
I have answered all other questions raised regarding my doctorate and none of those questions prove any wrongdoing. The police however refused to acknowledge any of this evidence, although they received it.
The National Court has spoken
After the hearing in the National Court on May 22 we received the headline that we needed: “Schram allowed temporarily to leave the country”. We did not get the headline we deserved, however, which is “Schram first wrongfully dismissed and then unlawfully charged on false pretence”.
In his judgement of May 22 on the bail conditions, the judge in the National Court – the second highest court in the country – was deliberately explicit on the substantive case: there is not a shred of primary evidence suggesting I have falsified anything, while there is overwhelming evidence that in fact my doctorate is genuine.
Finally, an independent judge has said what anyone with common sense could have concluded since the complaints were made in 2012.
The judge blasted the police and the complainant Ralph Saulep, and wrote in his judgment:
“In spite of this overwhelming evidence (presented by Dr Schram) Mr Saulep continues to dispute the authenticity of the applicant’s doctorate degree. I find this ridiculous and difficult to fathom especially when neither he or the police are in receipt of evidence from the European University Institute in Florence Italy, confirming their allegations and suspicions.”
The judge continued:
“The current charge, with respect, lacks the primary evidence to prove the elements of falsity. Whether they will have such evidence by the 12th of June 2018 (the next hearing) is anyone’s guess. The reality is that they have failed to do so when the allegations were raised in 2012″….
Since 2012 when the complaint was filed by the former [Unitech] pro-chancellor Ralph Saulep the police have failed to produce any evidence, and in fact cannot do so because there is no basis for it in fact and in truth.
In a state of law it is not up to the accused to prove his innocence, but for the police to prove substantial primary evidence of a crime and proof guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
The judge regretted I had been put in a position to prove my innocence, but pragmatically accepted the situation and my commitment to proof my innocence: “The refusal by Mr Saulep and the police will now cause the appliance to use his own expense to prove his innocence.”
It stands to reason therefore the case will be thrown out at some point in time, and my innocence will be established.
All this is of course damaging for police and the complainant – former pro-chancellor Ralph Saulep, in 2012 dismissed by the Minister with former Council members for mismanagement – and the University Council, which [earlier this year] dismissed me for no valid reason. The lack of evidence had already been indicated earlier by Keith Jackson.
Since the conditions for the settlement with the Council, which included no criminal prosecution, have now been violated, I do not consider myself bound to this agreement. In any case, for justice to prevail and the people of PNG to be liberated from police abuse, I must describe the facts.
This whole case is hugely damaging for the country where human rights and the police force are already severely criticised in the recent report from Human Rights Watch in New York.
If any tourist can be arrested for not being able to prove anything about his/her identity (birth, credentials etc.) and subsequently charged on “false pretence”, and then having to incur costs and waste time to prove his/her innocence at their own expense, we must warn all tourists and visitors.
From 2014 to 2016, though I had three wonderful years when Sir Nagora Bogan, a wise Chancellor, kept the politicians out of my hair, [when we] focused all our energies on the development, and on efficient, transparent accountable management, of the University.
Despite these recent experiences of politically driven persecution, my wife and I love the wonderful people of Papua New Guinea. We did not come to PNG to get rich and worked on local salaries paid in the national currency, but we came to make a difference. Although many things we tried, failed, our records of achievements speak for themselves.
So far, I have lived in seven different countries in Latin America and Europe, but the people of Papua New Guinea are the most warm, welcoming and generous people I have had the honour of meeting. After six years, for example, we have six wonderful young men who call us father and mother, three babies named after us, and I have four new brothers, subsistence farmer or fishermen living in villages like 80 percent of the population.
In addition, we have been adopted as Chiefs (for external affairs) in Busama Village, which is arguably a greater achievement than being appointed Vice-Chancellor. This new family is not after our money, but genuinely included us in their families, and communities.
Regrettably, when Sir Nagora Bogan resigned as Chancellor at the end of 2016, politics crept into the university governance with a deadly combination of external meddling and toxic internal administrative politics.
In 2016, we dealt as best as we could with major shortages in funding, and a terrible student crisis instigated from outside the university.
The university crisis in 2016, which led to the students wounding and killing each other on the campus of the PNG University of Technology, and the shooting of students on the campus of the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby was a direct consequence of politicians and aspiring politicians using students to fight their proxy fights before the elections in 2017.
A similar thing happened on the campuses in 2011 the year before the 2012 election, and let’s hope it does not repeat itself in 2021.
In 2017, it got worse with a battle for the control of the development rights of Uni-City on campus land, and land held by the University Development & Consulting Ltd, the commercial arm of the university now chaired by Sam Koim.
First the two Australian consultants, the urban planner and the financial consultant were pushed out and then apparently it was my turn. The transparency in the expression of interest process has now been lost, and it is rumoured that the development of this “prime real estate” will now occur with the support of Chinese government companies.
The need for truth telling
The feeling of being object of political prosecution is strangely familiar to me and my wife after my earlier experience of being deported three times from Papua New Guinea in 2013.
There is nothing quite like it. Entering a parallel world where lies are truth, and all people are blind, deaf and mute. In this world, you are completely along because there is no point in trying to have a reasonable conversation with anyone. A truly terrifying world, but the truth will set us free.
In 2013, while holding a current work visa for Papua New Guinea, I was denied entry twice on March 8 and May 9 and deported to Australia.
My deportation was done with the consent of someone at the highest level of government and, given the circumstances at the time, may actually have enhanced my personal safety considerably, or possibly even have saved my life.
While we must recognise each country has the sovereign right to deny anyone entry, there must be a process in place, and the visa must be cancelled formally.
We all have two eyes to see reality and two ears to hear what others say, but only one mouth to speak the truth. If one eyes, or one ear fails, we can still be part of the world around us and work hard to make a positive difference. When our only mouth fails, however, we are condemned to live in a world created for us by others, and unable to control anything.
Telling the truth for me is not about revenge, nor is it not about me. A world where those in leadership position are in a state of delusion and denial, and base their decision on incorrect information, the rule of law cannot possibly be upheld.
A world with no consistently applied rules is bound to descend into chaos and anarchy. As a higher education leader, such a world makes higher education unnecessary and redundant because qualification and competence do not matter, and academic credentials have no meaning.
As I said, my wife and I did not come to the country to get rich, but neither did we expect the financial ruin we are facing now. The legal fight with the Council for wrongful dismissal first and now the fight for my malicious prosecution by the police has drained all of our resources we needed to sustain ourselves while I am still unemployed. I missed two job interviews because of my arrest.
Our lives have been turned upside down. We seem to be the only ones to pay the price for the fight for good governance at the PNG University of Technology and for a police that upholds the rule of law. Why?
Because I gave my word to the court, I will go through the costly process of having a public notary in Italy legalise my original doctorate and send it through the appropriate diplomatic channels to the committal court in Waigani. This should clear all charges forever.
Afterwards I will claim damages for all the financial losses, opportunity costs and defamation of character I suffered. Some people will lose face, be demoted or lose their jobs, but without accountability there is no justice, and without justice there is no peace, healing and the opportunity to advance.
It is anybody’s guess what happens next. Given the series of incidents of abuse of ministerial authority and police power, and the recent publication of the Human Rights Watch report, in my view it seems a parliamentary inquiry into police abuse is warranted.
The current debacle shows that the performance of the University Council also fails to impress, and it seems time now to implement the long awaited reform and create an independent university council of no more than 13 members, rather than the current councils of 30+ members filled with political appointees.
It is too easy for the University Council to simply distance itself from my arrest, while it failed to clear me of those charges after the Sevua Investigation in 2014. In 2018, it brought these same trumped up charges based on the identical materials from 2012, and failed to see there was no evidence.
For me personally, my case should be thrown out for lack of primary evidence, and then it may not be necessary for me to return for a hearing on 12 June, if a hearing will even take place at all.
It is also likely my government will file an official protest and not allow me to travel back to PNG given the abuse of police power and the state of lawlessness this has produced in the country.
There is no limit to madness once it takes root: will I be charged for indecent exposure for having lost a few buttons on my shirt during the flight? Just saying, anything seems to go now.
Negative travel advisories for tourists from different may be issued, and universities will be unable to recruit qualified academics. Last week, for example, Unitech already lost a head of department, who is now back in the USA, and another respected academic because of what happened to me.
Like all of us academics, journalists and other knowledge workers who cannot return to the country, it makes us sad that until amends are made and the police has been restructured and under control, we will not be able to see our friends and our new and beloved family in PNG.
Australian National University, Development Policy Blog: “The Outrageous & Unfounded Arrest of Dr. Albert Schram” (13 May 2018, Canberra, Australia)
The Australian, Tim Dodd: “PNG Vice Chancellor Albert Schram Charged with False Pretence” (16 May 2018 – Melbourne, Australia)
Times Higher Education, Chris Havergal: “Former V-C Arrested upon Return to Papua New Guinea” (16 May 2018 – London, UK)
PNG Attitude blog, Keith Jackson: “National Court Mulls Albert Schram’s Application to Leave PNG” (18 May 2018 – Noosa, Australia)