Sat. Dec 14th, 2019

Nauru 19 pair seek asylum in Australia ahead of retrial that lawyers say is rigged

T-shirts worn by family and supporters of the 19 Nauruans who were prosecuted by government for staging a protest outside of parliament in 2015. - Photo: Nauru 19/ Facebook

YAREN, 11 NOVEMBER 2019 (THE GUARDIAN) — Two members of the so-called Nauru 19 have sought asylum in Australia ahead of a retrial this week. Lawyers say is the trial has been rigged against the defendants, who have been denied any real legal representation.

Squire Jeremiah and Rutherford Jeremiah arrived in Australia just days before a government-imposed travel ban, and have sought asylum ahead of a new trial ordered to begin today. They join the wife of the former president Sprent Dabwido. Dabwido died in Australia after seeking asylum.

The group, which now consists of 15 Nauruan activists and former politicians, are answering charges over 2015 protests against the expulsion from parliament of three MPs who had publicly criticised the government.

Their prosecution and inclusion on a government-operated blacklist, was found to be a “shameful affront to the rule of law” by a judge who dismissed the case against them, only for himself to then be effectively sacked and prosecution restarted.

“We the Nauru 19 protested because the Waqa government, including the current president, working in the Justice Department, illegally sacked and deported the judiciary and destroyed the opposition by expelling us from parliament,” said former MP Squire Jeremiah.

“Since then we have been blacklisted, banned from travel, denied health care and persecuted. Our families too have suffered persecution at the hands of their own government.”

While some of the group pleaded guilty, most defended themselves before the prosecution was thrown out by an independently appointed judge, Geoffrey Muecke, in September 2018.

However, Muecke was later sacked by the Nauruan government, then led by President Baron Waqa, and his ruling was overturned by a newly created court earlier this year, with the group’s case sent back to the Supreme Court for trial.

On Friday Judge Daniel Fatiaki, a controversial former Fijian chief justice, dismissed the Nauru 19’s application for a permanent stay and for the Nauruan government to pay defence legal costs. He ordered a trial begin on Monday.

One of the island’s only two public legal defenders had told Fatiaki he could not reasonably represent all 15 in a group as directed, that he had not been given any deposition files.

Muecke had said that a team of at least five lawyers would be needed for a fair trial.

However Fatiaki there was “no fundamental right in this country that a trial cannot begin and continue in the absence of legal representation”.

“A criminal trial in this country can begin, continue and end without a defendant being represented.”

Stephen Lawrence, an Australian lawyer who has previously represented the group, said it was a “continuation of years of persecution”.

“It should be clearly understood that what has gone on in the Nauru Supreme Court in the last two weeks is a parody of justice,” said Lawrence.

“We are seeing the legal process deliberately used to achieve unfair and unlawful outcomes. How can 15 accused be put to trial without the government allocating one cent for their defence?”

The late former Nauruan president Sprent Dabwido was also among the group. Before he died in May, he accused the government of holding his passport and preventing him from seeking cancer treatment overseas. He eventually sought asylum in Australia, where he lived out his final days.

His wife, Luci Dabwido, has also sought asylum in Australia.

“There will be no justice in Nauru for the Nauru 19,” she said.

“My husband died because they didn’t want him treated for cancer. Australian people would be shocked if they knew what is going on. I am calling on the president to end this case. End the unfairness and the persecution. Nauru needs to be united by strong leadership.”

Last week a new Australian-funded prison opened in Nauru, which the Nauruan government has been accused of building solely for the Nauru 19 group.

In his 2018 judgment Muecke said the actions of the Nauruan government and its justice minister, David Adeang, were “a shameful affront to the rule of law”, and he granted a permanent stay of prosecution against the group and ordered the Republic of Nauru to pay more than $300,000 in court costs.

Muecke said he considered the case to be a rare example of executive interference, virtually from the day of the protest.

“I consider that in denying the defendants legal representation and resisting their obtaining legal assistance, in imposing a ‘blacklist’, in forbidding any plea bargaining, and in publicly denouncing and vilifying the victims and those seeking to assist them, the Executive Government of Nauru has displayed persecutory conduct towards these defendants which is all the more serious in the unique context of Nauru,” Muecke said.

The Nauruan government has been contacted for comment. (PACNEWS)