The trial of 12 people without legal representation in Nauru’s Supreme Court is an extraordinary breach of individual rights and the rule of law, the New Zealand Law Society’s Rule of Law Committee says.
“The criminal charges against what has been known as the Nauru 19 have been a blight on justice in the South Pacific region for the last four years,” committee convenor Austin Forbes QC says.
“It is almost unbelievable that such events in Nauru should be occurring in 2019. We have 12 people who are on trial for serious offences but who have been unable to get lawyers to represent them. The Nauruan Minister of Justice has also been reported as stating in Parliament that no lawyers in Nauru are expected to provide any assistance to them, no legal aid is available for them, and that they deserve to be convicted and have the maximum penalty according to law imposed.
“It is time for the Pacific community to stand up and make it very clear to the government of Nauru that it cannot continue to flout the rule of law.”
Mr Forbes said the New Zealand Law Society was writing to the Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs to urge that the New Zealand Government becomes involved.
“If one country is trampling on what are fundamental legal rights and protections that should be available to all, that does not reflect well on other countries which give aid and assistance to it. New Zealand and Australia in particular should consider what they can do to influence and change the mindset of Nauru’s Government and judiciary.”
The Nauru 19 – now down to 12 – are charged with rioting and disturbing the Legislature after a protest against government corruption outside Nauru’s Parliament in June 2015. The defendants were forbidden to leave Nauru and prevented from speaking out.
The trial finally got underway in 2018 before Nauru Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey Muecke. He granted a permanent stay in the proceedings. His decision was severely critical of the actions of the Nauru Government, finding it had displayed persecutory conduct towards the defendants.
Justice Muecke, a former Australian judge, was later dismissed by the Nauruan Government and in June 2019 the Nauruan Court of Appeal overturned his decision to permanently stay the proceedings. A new trial was scheduled to begin on 29 October before Justice Daniel Fatiaki, a former Chief Justice of Fiji.
Justice Fatiaki dismissed another application for a stay on 8 November and ordered the trial proper to begin on 14 November. Nauru has just two public defenders. One was directed to represent all the defendants but said he was unable to adequately represent such a large group. However, Justice Fatiaki ruled that the trial could be held without the defendants being represented, and a verdict is now expected shortly.