12 Sep 2019

Nauru's new president contradicts blacklist claim

5:14 pm on 12 September 2019

Nauru's government has never meddled with the country's courts, says newly elected President Lionel Aingimea, contradicting claims his administration has eased a controversial "blacklist" imposed on political opponents charged with rioting.

Lionel Aingimea

Lionel Aingimea Photo: Nauru Government

In his first interview with international media since his election in August, Mr Aingimea appeared to stamp out hope for a substantive change in position from former president Baron Waqa, who lost his seat after six years in power.

"This government and previous governments have never interfered with the judiciary," Mr Aingimea told RNZ Pacific in a wide-ranging interview on Thursday in which he defended Mr Waqa's controversial legacy.

The comments come after a member of the so-called Nauru 19 - a group of government critics who have been charged over anti-government riots in 2015 - said they were allowed to leave the country after a state-imposed blacklist was lifted.

"This new government did allow the request for my passport for me to attend a UNDP Public Finance Management and Governance workshop," said Squire Jeremiah in a Facebook post on Tuesday. Staff at Nauru's national carrier were still wary in issuing him tickets but relented, the former MP added.

Under Nauru's blacklist the government has sanctioned employment and travel, including for medical transfers, according to rights groups, activists and the Australian judge Geoffrey Muecke.

The former president Sprent Dabwido, a Nauru 19 member, blamed his blacklisting for what would be his eventual death in May after delays in getting a passport to access cancer treatment in Australia.

The government has always denied the blacklist's existence.

In the interview, Mr Aingimea repeatedly denied government involvement in any treatment of the Nauru 19 and was evasive when answering quesions on whether there had been any changes to their situation, stressing it was a matter for the judiciary.

But contradicting himself at times, he also appeared to credit his administration for removing the blacklist's employment restrictions.

"We've basically said everybody can find a job and if they can find a job then they get the job based on their merit," he said, when asked whether the blacklist had been lifted.

"If there's any Nauruan who wants to get a job, go for it, be able to fight for your family."

Under Mr Waqa, Nauru's government was criticised as authoritarian and persecutory toward its opponents, and its treatment of refugees at Australian-run detention centres frequently came under fire from rights groups.

The surprise election result on 24 August was viewed as a vote for change from the country's 12,000 people.

"That sentiment should be respected and heard by the new group of MPs," the former cabinet minister and Nauru 19 member Mathew Batsiua told RNZ Pacific shortly after the election.

But Mr Aingimea's denials of any involvement in the reported lifting of the blacklist bely any official change in policy.

It's also unclear if and how the ongoing court case against the Nauru 19 will be altered by the new administration.

In June, the newly set up Nauru Court of Appeal overturned a permanent stay granted last year by Australia's High Court, ruling Justice Muecke went beyond his commission and was not empowered to determine constitutional issues.

Nauru's final court of appeal was the Australian High Court until the government secretly ended the agreement in 2018.