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As it becomes clear that Australia has helped establish an authoritarian regime on Nauru, government opponents are being denied medical care. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Medical treatment denied to Nauru politicians

Rutherford Jeremiah lay breathless on the beach. His plight was obvious to both the lifeguard and the fisheries worker who had rushed to help. It was also distressingly obvious to Jeremiah, who had struggled to pull himself to shore. Jeremiah had the bends.

He had been diving for fish. At depth and under pressure, the nitrogen he had inhaled from his tank was safely dissolved. But once he began to surface, and the water pressure decreased, the excess nitrogen his tissues had absorbed began to dangerously liberate itself in streams of bubbles. These were now obstructing blood vessels and damaging his nervous and respiratory systems.

There are two types of decompression sickness. One severe, one less so. Jeremiah’s symptoms clearly suggested the severe type. “His lower part was all numb – from his waist down – and he was also feeling chest pain and having trouble breathing properly,” said one witness, who did not wish to be named.

An ambulance was called, first aid rendered, and his legs alternately raised and massaged.

Rutherford Jeremiah is one of the Nauru 19, a group of former ministers, opposition MPs and supporters prosecuted by the Nauruan state for their part in 2015 protests, organised against the government’s suspension of opposition MPs for speaking to foreign media. Their prosecution involved various abuses of law, while their persecution was sustained by an employment blacklist.

In September last year, Geoffrey Muecke, a retired Australian judge appointed in 2018 to the Nauruan Supreme Court by president Baron Waqa, ordered a permanent stay on criminal proceedings, and described the Nauruan government’s actions as “a shameful affront to the rule of law”. Muecke also accepted the existence of a blacklist, which he also described as shameful.

It was just weeks later that Jeremiah collapsed on the beach. What followed suggested a sinister development in the persecution of the Nauru 19.

 

Sprent Dabwido is dying of cancer. The former Nauruan president tells me he likely has just days, maybe weeks, to live. He’s 46 years old. The previous night he was hospitalised for steroid treatment to reduce inflammation of his throat, but he says that unlike the athletic uses of steroids, which enhance muscles, this treatment has greatly weakened them.

Today, he’s back at home in Armidale, in regional New South Wales, where he has lived since March. A devout man, Dabwido admires the town’s many stone churches. He speaks softly, which seems to be not merely a measure of his physical decimation. Though once a Nauruan weightlifting champion, he now has a skeletal appearance.

Despite his terminal prognosis, Dabwido has applied for political asylum in Australia. A prominent member of the Nauru 19, Dabwido says he faces persecution back home. He also says his diagnosis last year was for an eminently treatable cancer – but the treatment would have to be found overseas. And here was the problem: the Nauruan government had confiscated his passport. Dabwido says that it wasn’t returned for seven or eight months after he told the government he needed to travel for medical treatment, a delay his Australian oncologist told him was fatefully significant. “It was because of who I was. Because of my politics,” he says. “They know what they’ve done. But there is no room for bitterness or anger. In the few days or weeks I have left, I want to laugh with my family. We can only ask the Lord to guide us.”

Dabwido spoke of his love for Nauru, and his partner, Luci. Travelling home from Glasgow in 2014, where he was supporting the Nauruan Commonwealth Games squad, he stopped for a few days in Paris. Alone, he took the lift to the top of the Eiffel Tower – “the most romantic place in the world” – and found himself surrounded by couples. He felt guilty for experiencing the view without Luci, and so he called her to describe it. Afterwards, he resolved to return with her to propose marriage there.

He never went back to Paris. After the 2015 protests, Dabwido was jailed, harassed and denied international travel. When earlier this year he was told that his life expectancy was measured in months, he took another elevator – this one down to the cafeteria of Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital to tell Luci the news. “We were smiling,” he tells me. “I don’t know what we were smiling about. Maybe that we were together. I proposed to her there. She said, ‘Of course.’ I was so relieved. I was so happy.” Last month, they had a commitment ceremony. Dabwido felt untouchable, “because I had an angel walking beside me down the aisle”.

As president of Nauru in 2012, Dabwido was the man who signed the offshore processing agreement with the Gillard government. He volunteers his regret about this now and speaks of the arrangement almost as if it were a curse. “Since [the Waqa government] has been in power for six, seven years, there has been $800 million from the Australian government, plus our own revenue. That’s almost a billion dollars, and we’ve seen no positive results. We’ve bred greedy leaders, who have been in charge of government contracts. Greed and corruption have spread. I truly regret Nauru’s involvement in the [regional processing centre]. I believed then we could have made Nauru a better place. But the money turned into greed and self-interest. We have turned into a nation that’s so corrupt it’s not funny. Families have turned against families, brothers against brothers. It has created a different Nauruan society. Nauru’s motto is ‘God’s Will First’ and yet it has made laws that prevent refugees from seeking medical help. We are hypocrites. Right now, there is no future for Nauru.”

 

Rutherford Jeremiah was taken to hospital and placed on oxygen. But his condition didn’t improve. Decompression sickness is unfortunately common on Nauru, and the island country has a hyperbaric chamber to treat sufferers. At the time of Jeremiah’s sickness, the chamber was being refitted but was operable. A person close to the process, who did not wish to be named, told me what happened next: “It takes normally six hours for the first treatment, and four hours for the follow-up treatment. Halfway through the first we were approached by doctors and directors telling us to discontinue the treatment until it is being authorised. I told them never, that is impossible. They allowed us to continue the first treatment but [told us to] wait for authorisation on the second, which was supposed to be carried out on the next day.”

That authorisation was supposed to come after a meeting. Those treating Jeremiah were anxious – things were urgent. But authorisation never came. At the risk of losing their jobs, the men treated Jeremiah anyway. He recovered fully, and was discharged from hospital.

The former justice minister, and vocal member of the Nauru 19, Mathew Batsiua has alleged that the Nauruan government intervened to deny Jeremiah his treatment. “Rutherford is a member of the Nauru 19 and has been blacklisted by the Government,” Batsiua wrote on Facebook last year. “We believe this is the reason why the [government] ordered that his treatment be stopped, despite knowing that it is a life-saving treatment and without it, Rutherford can be killed.”

 

The stories of Rutherford Jeremiah and Sprent Dabwido are just two examples of a brazen authoritarianism that has emerged in the Nauruan government. Over the years, The Saturday Paper has reported on many others. It is a government that has been enriched and emboldened by Australian patronage.

But it is not only a story of Australia holding its nose, or turning its eye. Last year, The Saturday Paper revealed that the Australian government had helped Nauru enforce its illegal blacklist against political dissidents. We are both complicit in “shameful affronts to the law” and in the hardening of authoritarian resolve.

This week, the shadow foreign minister, Senator Penny Wong, spoke at the Lowy Institute. There was little new in her speech – it was largely a platitudinous restatement of Labor policy – though on the Pacific she emphasised Labor’s higher commitment to reducing carbon emissions, a point of difference between her party and the Coalition. At the Pacific Islands Forum last year, it was urgently resolved that climate change is the region’s greatest security threat.

There was nothing on Nauru, Manus or offshore processing. Labor campaigners have told me there is nothing to be gained by talking about it – not least because the agreement was first forged by a Labor government.

“The RPC on Nauru is effectively Australian domestic policy prosecuted on another shore,” says University of Queensland adjunct associate professor Tess Newton Cain, who has written extensively on Pacific policy. “What does this mean for Nauruan people? What is the legacy being left? What we’ve seen is that the impact of the money and the methodology and the outsourcing of sovereignty has had a huge effect on Nauru’s commitment to democratic culture and a huge effect on its media. The Australian government has funded the dismantling of the rule of law in that country, while the money has totally skewed the economy. With an injection like that, you can’t expect it to not have a distorting effect.

“We’ve propped up corruption. But you need to take a longer view – there have long been issues of corruption in Nauru. That issue didn’t come along with the use of processing camps. It’s just another manifestation of a longstanding issue that has fluctuated over time. But there’s definitely a responsibility for the Australian government to help them transition [from an RPC-fuelled economy].”

The legacy of Australia’s offshore processing policy on Nauru is not limited to refugees. And while the number of refugees decreases in the country, a wildly destabilising legacy remains for its people. It is a legacy shared by both major Australian parties, regardless of who wins on May 18.

 

Last week, in the Nauruan Supreme Court, Justice Mohammed Khan overturned the acquittal of opposition MP Jaden Dogireiy on charges of minor assault and property damage, substituting it with a conviction and 13-month prison sentence. It was legally unusual, and the punishment significant – sentences of greater than one year disqualify a person from parliament in Nauru.

Justice Khan was appointed to the Nauru Supreme Court in 2014. In 2017, he was found to have extensively plagiarised a legal paper written, oddly, by one of the lawyers for the Nauru 19, and he included the stolen passages in one of his judgements. In a formal letter, the barrister Stephen Lawrence alerted the Nauruan justice minister, David Adeang, to the plagiarism. Adeang stood in parliament not long after and promised an investigation. To this day, nothing has happened.

Days after the conviction of Dogireiy, the recently formed Nauruan Court of Appeal adjourned to consider an appeal of Muecke’s judgement lodged by the Republic of Nauru. This has gravely alarmed the Nauru 19, none of whom have confidence in the court’s independence. There is no set date for the judgement.

Sprent Dabwido hopes to live long enough to hear a response that upholds the Muecke judgement, while his former cabinet colleague Mathew Batsiua says: “We now await the decision so whilst that is pending it is not proper for me to speculate, but we can’t shake off the feeling that even if the government appeal against the Muecke decision is dismissed, our persecution from the government will continue. We have seen them continue to deprive us from obtaining passports despite the permanent stay decision and the lifting of all our bail conditions.

“Life is tough, but we are getting by,” Batsiua says. “Interestingly, we are getting great support from the general public when we fundraise to pay flights and visas for the lawyers, but most people wish to remain anonymous fearful of government retribution if they are seen to be supportive of Nauru 19 activities. That’s the kind of Nauru we live in now as a result of the vindictive behaviour and intimidation generated by the actions of this government.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Medical treatment denied to Nauru politicians". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.