Three Nauruans charged over a 2015 protest at the suspension of opposition MPs from parliament, have had their prison sentences increased up to seven-fold on appeal, but will now take their case to the high court of Australia.
In an episode that has exposed long-running political tensions within Nauru’s fragile democracy, the appeal of the sentences for John Jeremiah, Josh Kepae, and Job Cecil, was adjudicated by acting chief justice Mohammed Shafi Khan on Tuesday.
The three men were part of a broader protest over the government’ suspension of three opposition MPs, including opposition leader Mathew Batsiua and former president Sprent Dabwido, who were unilaterally exiled from parliament a year earlier for speaking to foreign journalists about the breakdown of the rule of law in Nauru, and for “behaving in an unruly manner”.
The 2015 protest aimed to allow the MPs to actually enter the parliament building so they could contest being expelled.
The protest, involving dozens of supporters, spilled onto the neighbouring runway of the airport and forced a plane to be diverted. Rocks were thrown through parliament’s windows.
Jeremiah was originally jailed for three months. His sentence was increased to 22 months.
Kepae’s sentence went from six months to 22 months, while Cecil’s three-month term was raised to 14 months.
The magistrate who imposed the original sentences, Emma Garo, did not have her contract renewed by the Nauruan government following the judgments.
On Tuesday, Kahn said a protest on parliament was a serious offence.
“What occurred on the day was not only an attack on parliament, it was an attack on Nauru and its people, the constitution and the rule of law.
“I understand that you may have been concerned at their [the MPs’] suspension but you had no power to restore them.”
However, Australian lawyers for the three men have announced their intention to appeal to the high court of Australia, the ultimate court of appeal of Nauru’s legal system for cases other than constitutional matters.
Instructing solicitor Christian Hearn told Guardian Australia the three men were in jail.
“Justice Khan refused to rule on whether appeal legislation stayed the sentences and the registry refused to accept an application of habeas corpus.
“We are now working quickly to put together an appeal to the high court of Australia, which we expect to do by the end of the week.
“All involved in the case remain focused on the stay application currently before the district court. This application seeks to demonstrate that at present, the defendants cannot get a fair trial because the judiciary is not sufficiently independent of the executive.”
Nauru’s justice system has endured years of upheaval, under persistent allegations of government interference and a lack of independence for judges.
In 2014 chief magistrate Peter Law and chief justice Geoffrey Eames, both Australians, were sacked by the government, which they attribute to making judgments the government did not agree with.
Law was deported after he issued a stay against a deportation order (for another Australian citizen) issued by the justice minister, David Adeang. Eames was forbidden from returning to Nauru after issuing an injunction against Law’s deportation (which was ignored by the government).
Eames had also previously ruled that the speaker of the parliament Ludwig Scotty had acted unconstitutionally.
“He had told all and sundry, ‘we’ve got to get rid of this bloke’, and so when the events took place and my visa was removed, he was very much a player,” Eames told the Saturday Paper. “I don’t think the Nauruan government liked the idea of an independent judge.”
Parliamentarians have alleged Nauruan government ministers have an undemocratic influence and control of the country’s judiciary.
Former opposition leader Mathew Batsiua – whose 2014 suspension was the catalyst for the 2015 protest – has said unilaterally removing judges whose decisions displeased the government was “another example of the lengths this government will go to get its way”.
“By disregarding the independence of the judiciary, they are disregarding the constitution.”
The Nauruan government has consistently denied all allegations of interference in the independence of the judiciary.
It issued a statement this week saying media reports of the current case “seek to denigrate the legal system in our county and are insulting to members of our judiciary, who are upstanding, independent and respected across the Pacific region”.
“The Nauruan justice system is independent of the government and the defendants are being provided a fair trial. The government respects the legal process and does not comment on matters before the court. We expect others to do likewise including overseas media.”
In appointing new judges following the banishment of Law and Eames, Adeang said the government was “determined to uphold a transparent legal process and to enact the reform that best serves the people of Nauru”.
In 2015 New Zealand suspended aid to Nauru’s justice sector after expressing long-running concerns over the erosion of the rule of law. The country’s parliament also passed a unanimous resolution of concern over the political situation in Nauru.
Also in 2015, Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said the Australian government “was concerned” about Nauru’s democracy and the independence of the justice system.
“We urge there to be an adherence to the rule of law, that their justice system operates properly, that people are not denied natural justice, that they’re given an opportunity to present their case.”
Source: The Guardian