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Senators file lawsuit against gov’t for violation of Open Government Act

Koror, Palau -Members of Palau Senate “minority” bloc filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Infrastructure, Industries and Commerce (MPIIC) and its Minister for violation of the Open Government Act for refusing to disclose information and release government documents pertaining the airport expansion agreement with Japan Airport Terminal.

Civil Action 18-025 filed on January 29 before the Palau Supreme Court, is the first legal case brought forward under the Open Government Act.

Petitioners of the case are Sens. Regis Akitaya, Camsek Chin, Rukebai Inabo, J.Uduch Senior and Mason Whipps, with the lawsuit filed Monday through their counsel Johnson Toribiong.

The lawsuit asked the court to compel Minister Charles Obichang and his ministry to release information and government documents on the agreement between the Japan Airport Terminal and the Palau International Airport Corporation.

It also alleged that Obichang violated the law and should be meted a fine of $500 for refusal to produce the documents requested from him by the senators since August of 2017.

Under the Open Government Act, the lawsuit stated, requested documents should be provided, “within 10 days of any requests, all public records produced by a governing body shall be available to any person during regular business hours, unless the disclosure will take more time to produce due to exceptional circumstances or the volumes of the information requested.”

The petitioners said the requested documents were not furnished to the members of the Senate and instead, Obichang argued in his earlier letter that there are documents from the agreement that cannot be made public as mandated under Section 8, subsection a(2) of the Open Government Act especially “information related to negotiations with another country or another foreign entity that has its principal place of business in another country.”

However the senators cited in their lawsuit that the Constitution guarantees the right of every citizen the right to “examine government documents as mandated by Article 4, Section 12 of the Constitution.”

“A citizen has the right to examine any government document and to observe the official deliberations of any agency of government,” states Article 4, Section 12 of the Constitution.

Petitioners is seeking court order to declare Section 8, subsection a (2) of the Open Government Act as “unconstitutional” as “it infringes on the unconditional constitutional right of petitioners to examine government documents.

The lawsuit stemmed following repeated requests of the petitioners for Obichang to produce the documents.

The airport expansion agreement is the first public-private partnership scheme in Palau.

The multi million project includes expansion and renovation of terminal building, airport security screening equipment, baggage handling systems, airport special IT systems, new cargo terminal and car parking lot.

A statement from the Office of the President said that the government was taken by surprise by the lawsuit.

“We are surprised by the lawsuit because copies of the signed Joint Venture and Concession Agreements were delivered to the Olbiil Era Kelulau last week, well before the filing of this lawsuit,” the statement said.

The senators in their lawsuit cited that the only documents provided to the Senate are drafts and unsigned agreements.

The Open Government Act was enacted into law in July 2014 “to create a more open and transparent government so that the people of the Republic may hold their elected government representatives accountable.”

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