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Regional Processing Centre in Nauru
Commonwealth government's responsibilities relating to the management and operation of the Nauru Regional Processing Centre

EAMES, Mr Geoffrey Michael, Private capacity


CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I want to remind you that in giving evidence to this committee you are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is against the law for anyone to threaten or disadvantage you because of that evidence, and if they did that action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. Do you wish to make any comment on the capacity in which you appear today?

Mr Eames : I was the former Chief Justice of Nauru.

CHAIR: We have your submission, which we have numbered as submission 70. I now invite you to make a short opening statement, and after you have spoken I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.

Mr Eames : The arrest and deportation of Peter Law, who was resident magistrate and registrar, on 19 January 2014 and the subsequent cancellation of my visa constituted blatant breaches of the rule of law, as unanimously found by various international judicial and lawyer associations, and it led to 11 chief justices of Pacific nations signing a joint statement expressing their concern about what they said were serious concerns about judicial independence and the operation of the rule of law in Nauru. The removal of the judiciary was effected in breach of injunctions imposed by me and was done in response to decisions that the government did not like—those decisions having been made by the registrar and having, as it turned out, being entirely correct, as was acknowledged by the Solicitor-General of Nauru, who resigned in response to what occurred to Mr Law and me, plus the senior government solicitor also resigned at that time.

The government, unhappy with decisions, chose not to challenge them, although the matter was coming on for hearing the following day, 20 January 2014, and instead took the extraordinary action of having Mr Law arrested, physically man-handled onto a plane, flown out with a police escort sitting alongside of him—a quite remarkable day's events. The correctness of the decisions made by the registrar was implicitly acknowledged by the government, which repealed the Immigration Act 1999 and replaced it with new legislation which contained a retrospective provision declaring that all previous court orders were invalid and any proceedings against the government had to be discontinued. These fundamental breaches of the rule of law have never been acknowledged by the Nauru government as such. The government simply said it was entitled as an exercise of sovereignty to remove and replace the judiciary as it saw fit, even if that meant ignoring constitutional and contractual guarantees of judicial independence and the separation of powers.

It is my view that those events, although the government has been keen to put them to one side, have really corroded and permeated the situation in Nauru in the 18 months since, and that starting point is essential to be recognised because it has never been addressed. For 18 months the Australian government made no public statement expressing concern about the denial of the rule of law. At most the foreign minister and, I think, the minister for immigration, said that these were domestic matters for Nauru to resolve. Nauru chose not to resolve the situation but ignored criticism of its conduct and undertook increasingly repressive measures to stifle public criticism and to shroud events in Nauru in secrecy. There have, however, been some recent important developments. In particular the New Zealand parliament on 2 July this year unanimously passed a resolution expressing its concern about the behaviour of the Nauru government. In addition foreign minister McCully said that he would require assurances from the Nauru government about the restoration of the rule of law if the New Zealand government were to continue its funding of the justice sector. Foreign minister Julie Bishop also announced that she intended to seek assurances from the Nauru government when she met the President, Baron Waqa, two weeks ago. These are very welcome developments. In an ABC interview on 10 July, Ms Bishop was asked:

… given that we rely on Nauru's justice and legal system to operate the asylum seeker camps there or to oversee them, it is more than a domestic issue, isn't it?

Ms Bishop replied:

Yes, we are concerned. That's why I'm raising it. I mean if it were purely a domestic issue and Australia had no interest in it, I wouldn't have raised it with him, but we do have a concern.

I welcome that acknowledgement of Australia's pivotal role.

My concern is that to have any value the assurances must be backed up by actions that address the damage that was done both to individuals and to institutions by flouting the rule of law. Assurances have been sought from and given by the Nauru government in the past and been quickly repudiated by actions of the government. In February 2014 Minister McCully received assurances from the Nauru Minister for Justice, Mr David Adeang, and the home affairs minister, Mrs Charmaine Scotty, but immediately on their return to Nauru they made public statements that showed they gave little weight to judicial independence. Then within a few weeks the government forced five opposition members from parliament, the offence of three of them being no more than that they exercised their democratic right to free speech outside the parliament. Interestingly the issue which they were raising by way of free speech was their concern about the removal of the judiciary and the destruction of the rule of law. In response to the recent developments I have written an addendum to my submission which addresses what I see as the practical steps that would need to be taken if assurances given by the Nauru government are to be taken seriously. I understand that the committee has accepted that addendum document. Certainly I seek to table it. It is my submission that the rights of all people on Nauru—whether citizens, expatriates, asylum seekers or people declared to be refugees—require the protection of the rule of law. Australia has a very great influence on ensuring that the government genuinely commits to the rule of law and allows the free exercise of democracy in Nauru. I am pleased to answer any questions.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Eames. I will go to one of the really troubling elements of this aspect. Can you assure the committee that the rights of vulnerable children on Nauru in circumstances of sexual abuse, child abuse or physical abuse are protected in statute in Nauru? And is the statute there capable of administering justice as we would see it in Australia?

Mr Eames : Yes, certainly. If assaults or abuse are committed—not only against children but against anyone—the law of Nauru offers protection. The constitution of Nauru applies to all people on Nauru, not just to citizens. If offences were being committed either within the camps or outside the camps then the law enforcement authorities of Nauru would not only have jurisdiction but would also have an obligation to investigate. One of my concerns has been that there have been very many allegations made through the media of assaults taking place, in particular of assaults by Nauruans on people who have been declared refugees and moved into the community at Nauru. A great deal of hostility had developed; it had not been there initially, I do not think, but it had developed between Nauruans and people in the camps after the fire had taken place in July 2013. So there was certainly a degree of hostility, which made the allegation that there had been assaults believable. The allegations have been really quite serious. The people who had been removed into the community were in a pretty parlous state in terms of their own accommodation and their means of living. I understand that a number of them, 15 or 16, got jobs in the biggest department store in Nauru, but all of them resigned their positions under threats. I am told that that has occurred on other occasions as well. So the question of whether people are being abused or assaulted on Nauru should have been brought to the courts in the normal way. The Moss report refers to the role that the police were expected to undertake in investigations within the camp itself. Certainly, they had a responsibility to investigate any incidents which occurred. As far as I am aware, I don't know that a single prosecution has taken place arising out of an allegation of assault in such circumstances and, indeed, I am not even sure if there have been any investigations.

CHAIR: How would you normally find that out? Is there a cause list, or a published document that—

Mr Eames : One of the great frustrations since I departed Nauru—which is really a pretty closed society—is gaining information about what is occurring there. When I was the Chief Justice we published a daily list; we used the two legal research sites for publishing all of our judgements—district court and supreme court—and anyone could access these through the Dropbox system. Today, it is impossible to find out. As far as I am aware, there have been no judgements published on the websites; there is no daily list published I am aware of; and I really have no idea what has happened since January.

CHAIR: So there is no way that a concerned taxpayer or member of the Australian public can find out what actually happens in the justice system in Nauru?

Mr Eames : If you wanted to know how many charges have arisen out of incidents in the camp, how many allegations were made and how many of those allegations were investigated and led to charges, I really do not know how you would go about it. I certainly have no access to any information about that.

CHAIR: So we cannot see justice being done in Nauru at the moment?

Mr Eames : That is the trouble. It is a great worry. It is a very difficult jurisdiction in any event. The law in Nauru is unbelievably complicated. It is very difficult to cut through the list. There are very large waiting lists of civil and criminal cases in Nauru, and one of the concerns about what occurred with the removal of the judiciary was that for the next seven months there was no judiciary. I had any number of civil cases—quite important civil cases—that were running. I had one case for which I had heard six days of evidence at the time I got sacked. As far as I am aware that has just disappeared, because there is no transcript. That involved about 14 families on Nauru. I presume that has disappeared somewhere and might one day be started again.

Senator KIM CARR: I want to ask you about the comments you made on page 7 of your submission regarding the atmosphere of secrecy surrounding the facility and the impact this has had on the reporting and investigation of incidents. Can you explain to us what you mean by that?

Mr Eames : Sorry, which page were you referring to? Of the addendum?

Senator KIM CARR: This is the question of secrecy surrounding the operations of the facility. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that.

Mr Eames : As I said, it is extremely hard to gain any information about what is occurring on Nauru. So far as the detention centre itself is concerned, I had very few cases coming to me from the centre. I had a couple of assaults which arose by way of appeal, which gave a bit of an insight into what was occurring in the camp. One, for example, was a person who was charged with assaults. He was a detainee. He had been regarded as being a person who was dangerous or potentially so, and he had two prison guards—I call them prison guards—or security guards placed on him 24 hours a day, basically. They had to walk with him everywhere he walked in the camp, and the idea was that that would discourage him from becoming violent. In the case that I saw, it seemed to have the opposite effect and rather encouraged him. The detention centre itself operates, to my observation, very much like a prison, with all of the security that is attached to a prison except the obvious guns and weapons of that sort.

As far as the operations of the centre are concerned, from the court's point of view, unless someone brought a proceeding to the court, there would be no practical way that you would be able to gain information. In the end, I was torn between staying totally out of the detention centre and literally not inspecting the detention centre, because I thought it was highly likely that proceedings might come to the court. I was the only judge at that time. If I could not sit, no-one could sit. In the end, because I had been hearing a number of stories and rumours about the camp, I thought, 'I've got an obligation to inspect it to see if there's anything I can do,' and I arranged with Justice John von Doussa that he would be the judge who would sit on any of the cases that I would potentially be obliged to recuse myself from. That was in November 2013. That was the first opportunity I had had to have an inspection of the camp.

Senator KIM CARR: How would you describe conditions?

Mr Eames : I thought they were absolutely appalling. I said so in very emphatic terms to the secretary of justice, who went to the camps with me, and I said so to President Waqa when I saw him in late November. I was particularly concerned about the children. It has been described by witnesses you have just heard and others. The conditions there were really quite intolerable. The heat in Nauru was unbearable at the best of times, and certainly everyone who can uses air conditioning. In the camps, the heat was just overwhelming, and I was struck by seeing small children. There was so little shade. As the day wore on, a shadow would fall from the tents, so there would be a little triangle of shade alongside the tents, and I saw all these children huddling in the shade. That was apparently the only shady place that they could find. There seemed to be no facilities for playing. Most of the kids seemed to be in thongs, and it was a rock-hard, stony surface which was really quite difficult to walk on. I would hate to be trying to walk on it in thongs. I just came away thoroughly depressed and thinking, 'Really, is that the best we can do?'

Senator KIM CARR: Do you think it is the best we can do? Are the conditions part of the so-called deterrent of the policy?

Mr Eames : I heard you ask the question of the previous witnesses, Senator, and I must say I was drawn to that conclusion. If you ask what hard evidence is there for that, well, it is difficult to point to it, except to say: why else would you not correct this? There are hundreds of air conditioners brought into Nauru. There were huts going up everywhere for the workers who were working on Nauru. Everyone had air conditioning. They were spending billions of dollars on this detention centre. Why would you not have air conditioning?

When I had my inspection, one of the security people just in passing said, 'We asked about whether they should have hard walls put up,' so rather than just tents. I have no idea whether this is accurate or not, but this is what he reported to me: 'We were told by the minister'—this is Minister Morrison—'that they were not to be hard walls, the reason being that people would say that we can put air conditioners in them.' I do not know what weight you give to that, but I must say in my inspection I concluded that I cannot see why you would allow physical conditions that bad to remain when they are affecting children. That is the reason and that is the message I gave to President Waqa when I went to see him, and he agreed with me. He said, 'Yes, I've come up with this brilliant idea. There are a lot of workers who are actually inside the detention centre who have accommodation, all of which is air conditioned. There is no reason for them to stay there in the air conditioning. There is plenty of accommodation now for workers in Nauru itself, away from the camp, so I will ask Tony Abbott if we can move the children out of their accommodation and put them into the air-conditioned units.' I said, 'That's a brilliant move, and I congratulate you. That's a really good step in the right direction.' I do not know what happened to that. I have got no idea to this day whether anyone moved into air conditioning. I have read that children under five are now living in air-conditioned accommodation. I do not know what happens for anyone else. As far as I am aware, no air conditioning had been applied.

But it was not just the question of the heat. I know there was a big debate in Australia about whether it was right to call the detention centres a prison or not. I have seen plenty of prisons and as much as they have physical constraints they have an atmosphere about them of control and removal of entitlements, and certainly in my walking around the camp, seeing the demeanour and the interaction between the security guards and the people detained in the centre, it just struck me like any number of prisons I have seen.

Senator KIM CARR: In your judgement. is that atmosphere of secrecy driven by the Commonwealth government, by the department or by the contractors?

Mr Eames : I think whoever is driving it it is in the interests of both. The Nauru government had adopted a series of steps which very much invoked secrecy and withheld open discussion about the situation in Nauru generally. The Nauru government would not allow any media attention on the opposition, for example. The media unit in Nauru was told that they could not interview and publish the views of opposition members. That had been the case for quite a while. They passed legislation, which I refer to in my submission, which seems to me is likely to have quite a chilling effect on anyone who would want to be critical of government or government policies. It was not a situation where people would be confident about coming forward. The demonstrations that were held outside parliament one or two months ago were followed by the sackings of public servants who were seen at the demonstration. The only debate between the government and the opposition about that is how many got sacked. The government accepts that it sacked people who it recognised were protesting outside the parliament. There is a general atmosphere there that you cannot have an open discussion.

The parliamentarians who were removed from parliament, as I said earlier, were removed because they were criticising the collapse of the rule of law. It seemed to be a pretty legitimate issue for an opposition to be concerned with. But there are statements from the government, some of which I think I referred to in my submissions, which make it plain that they regarded that as treason, in effect. It was said to be—and this was the motion that was passed—a deliberate policy by the opposition to destroy the reputation of Nauru and to set back its development goals. This is because they were debating whether the sacking of the judiciary was a proper exercise or not! Those people have been out of parliament now for some 14 or 15 months. They had their cars removed, their phones removed, their salaries stopped. That is a pretty effective stifling of opposition.

CHAIR: The public servants that have been sacked: what would their redress be? Is there another area where people can get justice, or does it all go back to the court system?

Mr Eames : There is public service legislation which allows for people who have been charged with public service offences to go before a tribunal that is chaired by the chief justice and has a number of other people on it. There is that whole disciplinary process which is available in most public services. But apart from that the only remedies you have are through the courts. There are now any number of proceedings which have been issued, both civil and criminal, by individuals and others arising out of the events in January 2013. That has been stifled to a large extent by the refusal to grant a visa to the lawyer who represents most of those parties, so most of the proceedings, including constitutional arguments, are being conducted before the new supreme court by a person who is known as a pleader. The particular pleader who has done it is very intelligent—and I very greatly respect the gentleman concerned—but he does not have a law degree. He is no constitutional lawyer, and he would be absolutely unembarrassed by me saying this. He would not regard himself as being equipped to deal with the sort of constitutional issues which are coming up before the court arising out of the collapse of the rule of law.

CHAIR: So no less than the Prime Minister of Australia has suggested that we need to have confidence in the Nauruan legal system to take on board issues of law that might arise in the detention centres. I do not get the impression that you are supportive of that being a sensible, equitable option for people.

Mr Eames : It is a difficult situation when new judges are appointed in circumstances as arose here. The current chief justice was one of a number of judges who applied in 2013 for two additional positions as supreme court judge. That increase in the court was at my request to the government—and I said: 'We need to establish a court of appeal.' One of the judges who applied is the current chief justice. I recommended him to government as being an appropriate appointment. He had a fine reputation as both a judge and a politician in Fiji. It starts off with the proposition that there is no reason, with that sort of background, to believe that there would be other than a dedicated attempt to operate the courts. On the other hand I am sure Chief Justice Madraiwiwi, with his Fiji experience, would well appreciate that by the time that he got appointed a lot had changed: the previous judiciary had been thrown out; politicians had been removed from parliament on what seemed to be fairly specious grounds; and a whole series of what amount to quite repressive actions had taken place. In those circumstances there is bound to be a reserve or a suspicion about how the court is functioning. That could well produce an overreaction against government, rather than necessarily a reaction in favour of government. But when you add to it the fact that the lawyer of choice—and there is a constitutional right to that—has been refused a visa so he cannot argue the cases before the courts then you have to say it is a less than perfect justice system and there has got to be a question mark which hangs over it.

I think, with respect, the Chief Justice made a bad mistake when he was welcomed—and I am sure what he was trying to do was to move ahead. He described the events that had taken place as needing to pass beyond the turbulent events of the recent past. He said, 'We're now moving on to a judiciary which will have a new spirit of cooperation and collegiality' and then added that in Nauru the rule of law is really only evolving and is not at the same sort of level that it is in a more developed country. All of those I thought were the wrong messages to be sending. It seemed to me that it was a great opportunity at the welcome to make a very firm statement about the circumstances which had occurred and the reason why it would be absolutely essential for the court to demonstrate its independence from then on. I am not saying that the new court lacks independence but I am saying that it faces a difficult job.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mr Eames, thank you so much for coming along. I know that you have given your original submission plus the additional information. One of the statements you wrote in your submission strikes me as quite strong and perhaps opinionated but I am really interested to know why you have raised it like this. You said that David Adeang is the power behind the throne in Nauru. Why did you make that statement?

Mr Eames : When the dismissal of Peter Law occurred I got a phone call from President Waqa. He did not appreciate that I had already received a phone call from Peter Law. When he got arrested and placed in a police car he had his mobile and he rang me in Melbourne and told me that he was suddenly under arrest and was being deported. So when the President rang I said to him that I wanted an assurance that there would be no action taken on the deportation until I got to Nauru. I told him I had booked a plane that day and I would be there at 5.30 the following morning. That obviously took them totally by surprise—by the fact that I added that I had issued injunctions and would have them served unless I was given undertakings as required. It was plainly apparent to me that President Waqa, who I got on quite well with and had quite a pleasant relationship with most of the time—it was quite apparent to me that there was someone else present in the conversation. At one point he said, 'Look, I'll ring you back', which never happened.

Mr Adeang in his many portfolios—finance, the detention centre and Minister for Justice—is regarded throughout the island as being the key figure within the government. I do not think there would be a person who would dispute that. I am not even sure that President Waqa would dispute it himself. He has long been regarded as being the key person in the functioning of government. In my dealings with President Waqa it struck me—for example there were times when I was speaking on the phone to him and I would discover that there was a press release being put out in his name which was saying the reverse of what he was saying to me on the telephone in conversations. It was pretty obvious that someone was putting out statements in his name that he was surprised by. In fact one that was put out was that I had been removed to deal with corruption in the judiciary. So I got on the phone to the President and said, 'Can I have some particulars, please?' and he said, 'No, no, no—it's not referring to you; that's just a general statement. We're not suggesting there's anything wrong in you or Peter Law.'

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Who else made up the judiciary then?

Mr Eames : I said: 'Who else is there? If it's not me then who?' So that is where the impression comes from. He is a strong personality and a very intelligent and highly articulate person who makes almost no media statements in his own name.

Senator JOHNSTON: Thank you for coming along and recounting what has obviously been a very traumatic and confronting experience from a judicial point of view as an officer of the court. It is very confronting to read the way this judicial system, as it was, has been fundamentally or effectively dismantled in this small republic. When did you last go to the centre?

Mr Eames : It was November 2013, probably about 23 November.

Senator JOHNSTON: When did you have these discussions with the then President?

Mr Eames : I remember it very well: on my birthday, 26 November, I raised with him seven or eight items.

Senator JOHNSTON: Had you been a regular visitor to the centre or aware of it prior to that?

Mr Eames : No, I had deliberately stayed away from it. I went there when I first arrived in Nauru. The original detention centre such as it existed was still there, and I had an inspection of that, but it was not a going concern. I deliberately stayed away from inspecting the centre after that.

Senator JOHNSTON: So we are talking a year and a half or almost two years ago that you were there.

Mr Eames : Yes. I have no idea what has happened since.

Senator JOHNSTON: All right. Thank you for that. That is all I wanted to know.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You talked about the fact that, recently—last week—Julie Bishop finally made some public statements about the situation in relation to the judiciary in Nauru. If there is not improvement, what do you think Australia should do—or do you believe that we are inherently conflicted because of the interests of the detention facility?

Mr Eames : There is no doubt that the detention centre looms over everything in Nauru. When I got there, there was 80 per cent unemployment. The detention centre employed 600-odd people. Suddenly people were driving around on motorbikes. They were getting food. Stuff was being flown in. There was an atmosphere of wild enthusiasm that the situation had changed. So, for Nauru, a cripplingly poor country, the detention centre was hugely important. It is about the only industry they have that has any sort of income for any period of time. So that determination to keep the detention centre is entirely understandable, but it has an influence over all other events in Nauru. From my observation, it has obviously had a massive impact on the culture. Huge numbers of people have moved into the place, and it has changed. Everyone in Nauru would regard the change with mixed feelings: great to have the money, terrible to lose the culture.

I think the relationship between the Australian government and the Nauruan government is enormously affected by the detention centre. The secrecy issue I have no doubt was of benefit to the Australian government as it was to the Nauruan government to avoid critics of the system. I think it is unfortunate that the assurances that were given in 2014 were found to be completely meaningless but nothing was done about it. It was like giving a green light and saying, 'What we're going to do is make a few statements in the media saying, "We're cross and we want you to give us an assurance that the rule of law will be obeyed in the future. 'Yes, we give you that assurance".' It is completely worthless unless it is backed up, and that is why I have tried to suggest some very practical things in my addendum. You have to demonstrate that you really mean there is going to be a change.

You have to understand that what occurred on 19 January is extraordinary. To simply justify it on the basis that it is our sovereign right to remove the judiciary every time we do not like them is a startling statement from a country which depends so much on Australia. Its budget very largely comes from Australia. Its justice system funding is coming from New Zealand. The budget through the detention centre is of enormous importance to Nauru, so Australia has massive influence. I recounted the conversation with Baron Waqa saying, 'I'll ask Tony Abbott' as an acknowledgement of that. For every statement that this was a domestic matter that Nauru would look at, Nauru always had one eye to the larger country. That sort of symbiotic relationship is, it seems to me, a very powerful one in Nauru and one which Australia has not used to achieve a good result. It has simply gone along with the secrecy and the cover-up.

Eventually all of these issues have to be decided by courts. There are legal proceedings that have been issued challenging the detention centre on habeas corpus grounds and so forth. That has to come to a court and be decided on the facts. The challenges about people's business being unlawfully destroyed and people being deported should come to the courts. Instead what has happened here is the courts have been denied to people. The moves to deport the people, which led to all of this and led to the decisions made by Peter Law—if those people are right, they have had their businesses destroyed without any reasons, without any chance to argue the case. You now have legislation saying, 'All the orders that were made in your favour by the supreme court and by the district court we now declare void, and we now declare that no legal proceedings can be pursued.' What sort of a democracy is that? It is quite extraordinary.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It is not a democracy.

I know Senator Gallacher did touch on this, but I wonder if we can be a little more concise. We have been given a lot of evidence that children are being abused, that there are numerous—dozens—accounts of sexual assault and physical assault. What we hear from the Australian immigration department is that, in terms of having people charged and having justice delivered to the victims, that is a matter left to Nauru. They have been referred to Nauru police, so therefore it is out of the hands of Australian officials. Is there ever going to be justice for any single child or indeed a group of women who may have been subjected to this type of assault?

Mr Eames : I think the Moss report reflected the fact that there are some weaknesses in the training and abilities of the Nauruan police force. It is understandable; it is a very small force. They did have the benefit of a very good Australian Federal Police officer, who was the commissioner. He was sacked on the night of the fire in July 2013. He was taking a lot of steps to improve training and efficiency in the police force. It would have been a great move to have appointed a task force of police officers from Australia to come straightaway to Nauru to work both in training and in actually dealing with some of the allegations. These allegations of assault have been going on now for six to 12 months. I said before that I am not aware of any convictions, and I am not aware of any investigations. If there were, they apparently did not come to anything.

CHAIR: Is there any evidence or are there any statements as to why the police commissioner was sacked?

Mr Eames : It was said to be a dispute over tactics. When the people were demonstrating, they were saying they were going to march down to the huge airstrip in Nauru and demonstrate at the airstrip. He said to let them go. Minister Adeang, who was then the acting President, instead said, 'No, we won't take that course.' He sent a text message out. Nauru has a text message service for tsunamis so that everyone can be warned there is one coming. This one warned, 'The detention centre is under attack; all able bodied men are asked to come and defend the detention centre.' Hundreds of people, I am told, arrived at the scene carrying weapons and ready for a fight. Ironically, one of the opposition members of parliament, who has currently been thrown out for 14 months, stopped what would have been an appalling riot by standing in front of all of these people and talking them down to stop them joining in a free-for-all and attacking the refugees. There was a lot of hostility when people saw the damage that had been done by the fires. So there is a dispute between the President and the chief commissioner about how these things should have arisen. The chief commissioner said, 'If you had let them march down, this would not have happened; it would have defused.' The acting President disagreed, and he was dismissed.

CHAIR: Is that relationship fraught now? Is that rebuilding?

Mr Eames : There is no Australian police commissioner. It is a Nauruan who has taken control. In the recent demonstrations outside parliament, a member of parliament, Mr Batsiua, put out a statement saying the government has described this as a riot. He and others call it a demonstration. The courts will eventually have to decide which one it was. He said that he was tricked by the police, including the police commissioner. He was told, 'The President wants to speak to you; come through,' so he went through the police lines, got behind the police lines and was immediately arrested and handcuffed. It was just a trick to get him arrested. He then describes in the statements which he has put out quite vituperative remarks being made to him by the police commissioner—the sort of offensive remarks that immediately lead to a suspicion of hostility and bias in the events that are occurring. Certainly, from what I have read, that is the way it was taken by the member of parliament, because he started firing back the same sort of thing.

This is a very small country. Everyone is related to everyone, and I would think the relationship with the police force after Mr Britten went—I read just a month ago that there was a task force of Australian police sent to Nauru to conduct investigations in the camp. I know no more about that than a newspaper report. But, again, I think it was a terrible pity that after the fires there had not been a strategy brought in which involved some backup for the local police.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Peter Law, when he was giving us evidence at a previous hearing, was questioning the ability of the Nauruan police to be independent. Obviously there are questions about the judiciary and how independent you can be if you are threatened with deportation every time. Do you think questioning the independence of the police force is fair?

Mr Eames : I think there is a serious question about their independence and about their willingness to investigate allegations against Nauruans who are charged with assaults of non-Nauruans.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Which obviously goes right to the heart of a number of the allegations we are dealing with.

Mr Eames : If it is the case, as appears to be so, that there have been any number of allegations of assaults that have taken place and no investigations, you would have to ask why that is. It has to be a problem at the top as well as a problem within the ranks. For example, I have read of events that occurred where people who had been declared refugees were demonstrating and a group of Nauruan locals came and started assaulting them. The police were called; the police came in and arrested the demonstrators, not the people engaged in the assaults. Those are the sorts of allegations that have been consistently made and so it becomes a question—whatever the truth is of whether they are independent—of what is the perception? There is a very strong perception that they are acting for the government, and you cannot expect to receive an independent, non-biased investigation. If the detention centre cases are to continue arising, then that just has to be replaced. These cases have to come before a court, which is plainly competent and independent. I hope this court will be, and I believe they will do their best to be, but all of these matters have to be transferred into the judicial system so the facts can be determined. If the facts are established, and there have been assaults, justice can be addressed.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence, Mr Eames. I am not sure if you took any questions on notice, but if you did we would like the answers by 24 July.

Mr Eames : Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 15:56 to 16:01