Nauru – Ongoing MP suspensions highlight concerns about democratic freedoms

It has been more than a year since I first wrote on this blog about the suspension of Nauruan MPs from parliament on the grounds that they were being overly critical of the current government’s development strategy. Despite repeated attempts to overturn the ban, the suspension remains. And, in the interim, the situation has escalated.

As long-time readers may recall, the initial controversy surrounded the suspension of three MPs. Since then, the number has risen to five with two further MPs, Sprent Dabwido and Squire Jeremiah, now held in custody for their participation in protests outside parliament. The other three are Dr Kieran Keke, Roland Kun and Matthew Batsiua. Initially Batsiua was also arrested for his role in the protests but has since been released under strict bail conditions. The protests that led to these arrests were related to the ongoing suspensions. The Australian-based lawyer of the accused was recently refused entry into the country to mount a case in their defence.

The suspensions have heightened international interest in the tiny island nation. In June, the Australian Broadcasting Commission reported that a Queensland phosphate importer had allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Nauru’s justice minister, David Adeang, the President, Baron Waqa, and other government MPs. Adeang, often cited as the defacto head of government, denied the claims, first raised in the Nauruan parliament in 2009, and accused the Australian media of campaigning to destabilise Nauru. Likewise, President Waqa has stated that its larger neighbours will not bully Nauru and accused the foreign media of bias. In June, he argued that the arrests had nothing to do with the MPs speaking out against the government but reflected the fact that they were ringleaders of a violent protest aimed at toppling a democratically elected government in order to further their thirst for political power. The government has labelled the protest a riot in which several police was injured.

The New Zealand government has been at the forefront of international condemnation of the current state of affairs. In July the parliament unanimously passed a motion expressing concern about the political situation in Nauru. More recently, the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, has suspended aid amounting to around $750,000 annually to Nauru.

Australia, on the other hand, the largest aid donor to Nauru and financier of an asylum seeker processing facility on the island, has refused to go this far. Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has expressed dismay at the way the situation has unfolded and has sought assurances from the Nauruan government that the rule of law will be upheld. New head of the Pacific Island Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, has likewise expressed concern but dismissed the notion that the regional body will take action.

These claims and counter claims have emerged against the backdrop of an Australian parliamentary inquiry into the management and operation of the asylum seeker detention facility on Nauru, including the safety of children and their families from alleged sexual abuse and criminal conduct.

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