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Nauru: Government Actions Against Judiciary Raise Concerns

(Feb. 3, 2014) Potential Constitutional Crisis

On January 31, 2014, it was reported that the Government of Nauru has started the process of drafting a law that would result in the country being placed under emergency rule. (Jeff Waters, Nauruan Government Drafting Law to Impose Emergency Rule, AUSTRALIAN NETWORK NEWS (Jan. 31, 2014).) This follows a series of events during January that saw the Pacific Island nation’s resident magistrate and Supreme Court registrar, Peter Law, being removed from his position by the government and deported to Australia, as well as the cancellation of the visa of its Australian-based Chief Justice, Geoffrey Eames. (<?Id.)

In a press release, the Nauru government said that Law’s termination on January 19, 2014, resulted from its loss of confidence in his ability to “hear matters in a manner considered to be fair and equal.” (Press Release, Government of the Republic of Nauru, Nauru Loss of Confidence in Former Magistrate (Jan. 21, 2014).) The government said that it had received complaints about drunk, disorderly, and inappropriate behavior on the part of Law, as well as allegations that he had interfered in cases and undermined senior public servants. (Id.) Law strongly denied these allegations. (Michael Gordon, Courts in Crisis as Nauru Sacks Its Only Magistrate, THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD (Jan. 20, 2014).)

According to reports, Chief Justice Eames sought to intervene by issuing an injunction against the deportation of Law, but that injunction was ignored by the government. Justice Eames’ visa to return to the country was subsequently cancelled. In an interview with ABC News (Australia), Justice Eames said that the two decisions were politically motivated and related to the Nauruan government’s not agreeing with rulings made by Law that had stopped it from deporting three resident foreign nationals, including two Australians. (Jeff Waters, Nauru’s Chief Justice Geoffrey Eames Says Visa Cancellation Is PoliticallyMotivated, ABC NEWS (Jan. 20, 2014).) Under the Nauru Constitution, the Chief Justice can only be removed from office if two-thirds of the Members of Parliament vote in favor of the removal on the grounds of misconduct. (Constitution of Nauru (Jan. 31, 1968, as amended on May 17, 1968), art. 51(1), PACLII.)

Nauru’s Solicitor General, Steve Bliim, subsequently resigned in protest, saying that the government’s actions did not comply with the country’s laws. (Former Nauru Solicitor General Says Ethics Behind Resignation, AUSTRALIA NETWORK NEWS (Jan. 29, 2014).)

Responses to the Government’s Actions

Various legal organizations also condemned the actions of the Nauruan government, including the Law Council of Australia, the Australian Bar Association, the Nauru Law Society, the South Pacific Lawyers Association, and the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association. (Press Release, Law Council of Australia and Australian Bar Association, Joint Media Statement – Nauru Government (Jan. 20, 2014); Law Society Hits Out at Nauru Government in Deportation Row, RADIO AUSTRALIA (updated Jan. 27, 2014); South Pacific Lawyers Unhappy with Nauru Judicial Decisions, RADIO AUSTRALIA (Jan. 21, 2014); Press Release, Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Commonwealth Legal Education Association, & Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association, Statement on the Removal and Deportation of Magistrate Law and the Revocation of the Chief Justice’s Visa by the Nauru Authorities (Jan. 22, 2014).)

The government issued a press release countering comments by lawyers and activists in the Australian media, saying the country is not in “chaos,” that there are no constitutional issues, and that the rule of law is being respected. It also said that it is seeking to stamp out corruption and cronyism and that the media reports “damage Nauru’s reputation and display a culture of international bullying, arrogance and even racism.” (Press Release, Government of the Republic of Nauru, Statement from the Government of Nauru (Jan. 29, 2014).)

The Nauruan Opposition called for a no-confidence vote against the President and government, but this their motion was defeated in the Parliament on January 28. (Press Release, Government of the Republic of Nauru, Waqa Government Defeats No Confidence Motion (Jan. 29, 2014).)

Immigration Law Changes

The Parliament subsequently passed new immigration laws that allowed the Minister of Justice to issue a deportation order with respect to former Nauruan government spokesman and long-term resident Rod Henshaw. The government’s previous attempt to deport Henshaw was the subject of one of Law’s injunctions. The replacement resident magistrate, Andrew Jacobsen, said that the new laws prevented him from intervening in the deportation. (Lauren Wilson, Deportation Escalates Nauru’s Legal Crisis, THE AUSTRALIAN (Jan. 30, 2014).)