On Friday 19th July 2013, it was reported that over 150 asylum seekers had rioted and razed the Nauru Regional Processing Centre to the ground. In the aftermath of the riot, Australian and Nauruan government officials condemned the actions of the asylum seekers. For many Australians this proved that asylum seekers are dangerous, and destructive, and that harsher immigration measures are necessary to restrict more from arriving.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, there are currently 61 asylum seekers detained in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre on charges associated with the July 2013 riot that could see each serve lengthy prison sentences. This would end any hope they have of reaching Australia as a refugee.
I know these men, I worked with them for nine months while I was employed by the Salvation Army on Nauru and I became very close with them during my time on the island. I left shortly before the riot in July 2013.
In my recent book, The Undesirables: Inside Nauru, I wrote about their characters, their stories, their hopes and dreams, and the deterioration of their mental health. I referred to them by the pseudonyms Dev, Yaqub, Raj and Mustafa, originally to protect their identities from the Nauruan government, however I now believe they need protection from Australian authorities as well.These men are adamant that they are innocent.
In January 2014, the Nauruan government sacked its only magistrate, Peter Law, and deported him, and then denied its Australian Chief Justice a visa to re-enter the country. Mr Law was due to hear the case against Dev, Yaqub, Raj, Mustafa and the asylum seekers facing charges associated with the riots. It was reported by the media that Peter Law had fought against holding the court case within the regional processing centre, secreted away from the media, while the investigation into the riot is being led by the centre’s security staff, who are hardly independent in the matter.
The lack of legal process for asylum seekers was evident to me throughout the time I spent on Nauru: evident in the absence of refugee processing and evident in the policy of indefinite detention. While on Nauru, one of the men, Mustafa, was accused of being involved in an earlier riot that saw fifteen men charged and taken to court. Mustafa was not named in any witness statements and there was no evidence to suggest that he had been involved in the riot. If not for the legal aid of an Australian lawyer, Jay Williams, he may have been found guilty of a crime he did not commit.
It is impossible to deny that there is growing resentment among the local population against asylum seekers incarcerated on Nauru. On the night of the riot, the president of Nauru sacked the police commissioner and instated an emergency police force comprised of local men who came to the camp wielding weapons including machetes. One witness stated that a group of Nauruans boarded a bus full of asylum seekers bound for the jail cells and assaulted them. Over one hundred men were arrested and placed in a Nauruan jail.
Every account I heard indicated that the arrested men were not provided with adequate legal representation. They were refused lawyers and instead served by Nauruan paralegals who merely asked if they would plead guilty or not guilty. They were refused phone calls or any other contact with the outside world. Many of the asylum seekers had been seriously injured in the riot, though it was unclear if they were provided with adequate medical treatment. Some of the jailed asylum seekers alleged that they were beaten, that they were denied food and water, and some asylum seekers even accused the guards of stripping them naked.
I was reunited with a former detainee at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre the other day. The Iranian man had been rounded up and arrested by the Nauruan people. He was placed in a jail cell for twenty days.
He showed an open hand, motioning to cuff me around the ears. “The Nauruans they hit us,” he said. “They shout at us, ‘Who start the fire?’ They shout, ‘Fuck you, fuck asylum seeker.’ We ask for water, beg for water, and they say, ‘Drink from the toilet’.”
When I commented that this was awful, he said that it was better than in Iran.
That same Iranian man told me that as the Nauruan police took Dev away from the camp in handcuffs they said to him, 'Goodbye Mr Journalist,' an implication that this was revenge for him having contact with Australian media. It is hard to see how a fair trial will take place on this island that has abandoned the rule of law.
My intention in publishing The Undesirables was to show the Australian people the reality of these offshore processing centres, the reality of deterrence. The book describes the months leading up to the July 2013 riot, exposing the physical and psychological conditions that plagued the men and unequivocally influenced their decision-making abilities. The aftermath of the July riots has been managed in secret - a recurring characteristic of both Labor and Coalition asylum seeker policies that must sit uneasily with the Australian public. The Australian and Nauruan governments cannot assure these men a fair trial, instead what looks more likely is that their lives will be ruined for the sake of two vindictive governments who wish to make an example of them.
Mark Isaacs is the author of The Undesirables: Inside Nauru.