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Palau Court sides with government in airport expansion case

Koror- The Palau Supreme Court yesterday ruled yesterday that Minister of Public Infrastructure, Industries, and Commerce Charles Obichang complied with the Open Government Act when he made available copies of requested documents to the Palau National Congress, instead of delivering them to the individual senators or their counsel.

Associate Justice Kathleen Salii ruled that because each of the plaintiffs – senate minority bloc – is a current senator, the requested documents have been “made available” to them in satisfaction of the Open Government Act’s requirement.

Rendition of the proposed Palau International Airport. Illustration by Office of the President.

Mr. Obichang, in his ministerial capacity and as an individual, was sued by the five-member Senate minority bloc for failure to produce documents relating to the expansion of the Palau International Airport. The documents include: feasibility study on the Airport Renovation Project; signed joint venture incorporation document; signed concession agreement; preliminary design and the estimated cost of the project, and JICA proposed financing plan. In their lawsuit, the senators asked the court to find that defendant violated the Open Government Act and to further seek a declaratory judgment that the said law’s exception for documents pertaining to negotiations with a foreign entity is unconstitutional. While the court granted the summary judgment in favor of the government, it didn’t rule on the constitutionality issue brought up by the senators that refusing to make public the documents violates the constitutional clause that guarantees citizens’ right to examine any government document.

Crowded departure lounge at the Palau International Airport.

“Although both parties request the Court to rule on the constitutionality…of the OGA, such a determination is unnecessary to resolve the dispute, as Defendant ultimately agreed to disclose the requested documents to Plaintiffs,” Associate Justice said in her decision.

In 2015, Palau began negotiations with multiple Japanese companies regarding the renovation and expansion of the Palau International Airport. These companies included Sojitz Corporation, Japan International Terminal Company, and JICA. On August 7th, a joint venture agreement between the parties was signed to formally launch a major public-private partnership project to renovate and expand the Palau International Airport. And on January 8, 2018, the five senators – Regis Akitaya, Camsek Chin, Rukebai Inabo, Uduch Sengebau-Senior and Mason Whipps sent a letter to Minister Obichang seeking access to the documents.

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