By Matt Siegel
SYDNEY, Feb 11 – Australia’s government has directed senior officials on how to respond to questions about political turmoil and alleged corruption in Nauru, where it has an asylum seeker detention center, documents obtained by Reuters under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request show.
The diplomatic cables, ministerial talking points and classified emails between Australian officials cover a tumultuous period that began with the 2014 sacking of Nauru’s independent judiciary by President Baron Waqa and end in October 2015 with an Australian Senate hearing on the arrests of opposition Nauru lawmakers.
In recent months, some critics have said Australia was downplaying concerns about human rights and the erosion of law in its smaller Pacific neighbor, where more than 500 men, women and children who had sought asylum in Australia are held.
In emailed comments to Reuters, a spokeswoman for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop rejected the view that a desire to maintain the detention center outweighed human rights concerns, and stressed that Bishop raised such matters directly with President Waqa “on several occasions last year.”
“The Australian government’s position in relation to the Regional Processing Center on Nauru has no bearing on the stance we take on domestic human rights issues in Nauru,” the spokeswoman said.
Several documents among the 115 pages released to Reuters on Wednesday show Department of Foreign Affairs officials advising staff and ministers to deliver a muted response to events in Nauru.
For instance, weeks after Nauru ordered its sole Internet provider to block access to Facebook in April 2015, which critics including former Nauru Chief Justice Geoffrey Eames said was an attempt to stifle dissent, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs advised officials to call political debate there “robust”, a May 14 document showed.
In talking points prepared by the department for staff including Bishop, officials are directed to defend Nauru’s rights to make new laws if asked about the ban by journalists. “Nauru is a sovereign nation able to establish its own legal framework,” the document says.
Weeks earlier, Nauru Justice Minister David Adeang initially explained the Facebook block on the grounds of limiting access to child pornography. In May, Nauru made it illegal to make a statement “likely to threaten national defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health”, punishable by up to seven years in prison.
The Nauru government declined to comment on what it called “internal matters of the Australian government,” spokeswoman Joanna Olsson said in response to Reuters queries, adding “any suggestion that the rule of law is not respected in Nauru is false.”
In 2010, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) began investigating an Australian company, Getax, over allegations it paid bribes to Nauruan officials to secure more favorable rates for Nauruan phosphate.
In June 2015, the Australian Broadcasting Corp, citing leaked emails, reported that the investigation involved a former Getax official paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to Waqa and Adeang.
In talking points about both allegations of human rights abuses and corruption at Getax, Bishop, the prime minister’s office and other Australian senior ministers are instructed by the Department of Foreign Affair’s Pacific Affairs Division to respond to the question of what the allegations mean for the bilateral relationship.
“I expect Australia’s good relations with Nauru to continue,” say the talking points in a June 10 document. “Our longstanding bilateral relationship covers trade, people to people links and cooperation on regional and international challenges, including people smuggling.”
Olsson, the Nauru government spokeswoman, said the government was not aware of any AFP investigation. She added the corruption claims had been “dealt with and found baseless”.
An AFP spokesman said the Getax investigation is ongoing. A spokeswoman for Getax declined to comment. Reuters was unable to reach Waqa, Adeang or the Getax official, or to independently confirm the accusations.
A Nauru government spokesman previously said the accusations were “a slur on the character of our president and offensive to our nation.”
Another FOI document dated June 24 advised senior officials how to respond after protests related to the suspension of three opposition lawmakers outside Nauru’s parliament last June resulted in the arrest of the lawmakers.
If asked: “Is the Australian government ignoring the erosion of law in Nauru?”, acceptable answers included: “It is understandable that the protests … are attracting some attention” and “We recognize and respect that these are domestic issues for Nauru.”
Jenny Hayward-Jones, a regional expert at Sydney think-tank the Lowy Institute, said it was in Australia’s interest to maintain the asylum seeker centre on Nauru and keep the government there operating as effectively as possible.
“To do that, I think the Australian government assesses that it’s better not to criticize the Nauru government,” she said.
The FOI documents were heavily redacted, in many cases citing an exemption where disclosure could damage Australia’s international relations.
In redacted notes regarding a call from Bishop to Waqa dated Sept. 3, Bishop notes “continuing strong interest” in the arrest of the opposition lawmakers, and adds she is “encouraged to hear that legal hearings are progressing.”
On the same day, New Zealand suspended NZ$1.2 million ($801,600) in annual aid for Nauru’s law and justice sector citing concerns about “civil rights abuses.”
($1 = 1.4079 Australian dollars)