Australia’s secret US refugee deal faces blowback from victims, Kiwis

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Australia’s secret US refugee deal faces blowback from victims, Kiwis

SYDNEY — Revelations that Australia resettled Rwandans accused of murdering tourists after the U.S. agreed to take in refugees being held in Australia’s controversial offshore refugee centers are sending shockwaves through the country as it heads to the polls Saturday, and could strain relations with neighboring New Zealand.

In a deal struck in 2016 by Australia and the U.S. under former leaders Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama, Washington publicly agreed to take in up to 1,250 refugees, predominantly from Iran, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, who were being held in Australian-run offshore island camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The deal was done after Australia, also publicly, agreed to resettle Central American refugees from camps in Costa Rica.

But in a secret arrangement, Australia also agreed to take in at least two of three Rwandans who were brought to the U.S. to face trial — and potentially the federal death penalty — on charges of involvement in the brutal murder of eight tourists, including two Americans and two New Zealanders, who were on a gorilla-watching visit to the Ugandan rainforest in 1999. While the three Rwandans, who were members of Hutu rebel group Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALIR), confessed to the murders, the American case fell apart after a judge ruled the men were tortured in their home country. That left the trio stuck in limbo, lacking the legal status to remain in the U.S., but fighting not to be returned home over concerns of persecution.

Enter Australia.

The country partly relieved America’s headache by resettling two of the men, Leonidas Bimenyimana and Gregoire Nyaminani, in Australia last November. The third, Francois Karake, told POLITICO he too met with an Australian embassy official, but he remains in the U.S., potentially because of an altercation that injured a guard at an immigration detention center in September 2015.

“We would rather take a not very attractive guy that help you out than to take a Noble [sic] Peace Prize winner that comes by boat. That is the point” — Malcolm Turnbull to Donald Trump

Attorneys for the three men did not respond to repeated questions about the transfer, while U.S. and Australian officials initially declined to comment. Several people close to the Rwandans confirmed to POLITICO that Australia accepted Bimenyimana and Nyaminani as “humanitarian” migrants — essentially refugees — at America’s request.

After POLITICO revealed the details of the Rwandan deal, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the men are in his country.

“They’re in Australia,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the “7.30” TV news program on Australian broadcaster ABC Thursday. He added: “They were cleared of those particular matters, in terms of Australia’s assessment of those particular matters.”

Earlier, Morrison said in a statement to ABC: “I can confirm that the two individuals were subjected to strict security and character checks by our security agencies. That included checks relating to national security, criminality, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“That resulted in an assessment that they did not represent a risk to security and they were cleared.”

Political time-bomb

Turnbull, who spearheaded the deal with the U.S., was forced out of the Australian premiership last August in a challenge from within his own center-right Liberal Party. He was replaced as prime minister by Morrison, a hard-line former immigration and border protection minister.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not deny any of the facts in POLITICO’s investigation | Mark Nolan/Getty Images

Morrison was instrumental in implementing Australia’s harsh asylum-seeker policies. So proud is he of his tough stance, he decorated his prime ministerial office in Canberra with a model of a migrant boat engraved with the words “I Stopped These.”

The problem is that while the boats have indeed mostly stopped arriving in Australian waters, successive governments haven’t known what to do with those who’ve already made the journey — refugees who come to Australia by sea are banned from ever settling in the country, without exception.

At the time Turnbull struck the deal with Obama in 2016, there were about 1,250 refugees in Australian-run detention centers on the Pacific island of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. The United Nations had ruled the indefinite detention of refugees over security concerns breached international law and labeled the offshore camps inhumane and “immensely harmful.” Reports of refugees being abused and self-harming were rife. And then there was the financial cost — an average of €350,000 (or 573,111 Australian dollars) per person per year.

Emptying the centers was a top priority for Turnbull — which explains why the then-PM struck the refugee pact with the U.S. But the deal appeared uncharacteristically skewed in Australia’s favor, and journalists have long attempted to figure out what was really in it for the Americans.

Interest reached fever pitch in the wake of an explosive phone call, a transcript of which was leaked to the Washington Post, between Turnbull and Donald Trump soon after the U.S. president took office in early 2017. Trump reportedly yelled at Turnbull during the call, labeling the agreement “the worst deal ever,” while the Australian PM pleaded with him to abide by his predecessor’s commitments.

But the leaders’ extraordinary exchange hinted Canberra was doing more for the U.S. than just taking in Central American refugees.

“Basically, we are taking people from the previous administration that they were very keen on getting out of the United States,” Turnbull told Trump, according to the leaked transcript. “We will take more. We will take anyone that you want us to take.”

A Somalian refugee at Camp Five in Nauru | Mike Leyral/AFP via Getty Images

He pointedly added: “We would rather take a not very attractive guy that help you out than to take a Noble [sic] Peace Prize winner that comes by boat. That is the point.”

The transfer of the Rwandans sheds new light on those comments — and highlights the Australian government’s hypocrisy.

Earlier this year, after Australian lawmakers passed legislation that would give doctors greater power to evacuate asylum seekers off Manus and Nauru on medical grounds, the Morrison government said it had identified 57 refugees and asylum seekers on the islands who were of “adverse character” because they were suspected or accused (but not convicted) of criminal activity.

The government said these people were too dangerous to be brought to the mainland for medical treatment, and would instead be sent to a detention center on the Australian territory of Christmas Island. Among those barred from the mainland was a man who was charged with assault and previously “allegedly charged” with murder, another accused of being involved in a sexual relationship with a minor, and a man allegedly involved in extremist or nationalist activity.

The Rwandans, meanwhile, whom the United States sought to execute for the alleged rapes and murders of tourists, and who were members of a Hutu militia linked to the Rwandan genocide, had been quietly resettled in Australia just a few months earlier — on Morrison’s watch.

Backlash

The victims of the Ugandan attack and their families expressed shock and alarm when informed of Australia’s decision to take in the two men suspected of carrying out the atrocities.

“That’s just insane,” said Mark Ross, an American safari leader taken hostage and beaten with bamboo canes during the attack two decades ago. “These guys have ended up being bargaining chips, or pawns, in something bigger.”

Closer to home, Australia’s decision is likely to anger its closest neighbor, New Zealand. Two Kiwi women — Michelle Strathern and Rhonda Avis — were killed in the rampage at the Ugandan park.

In March, Strathern’s parents traveled from Christchurch to Auckland to gather at a beach with Avis’ family to mark a grim occasion: the 20th anniversary of the murders of their daughters half a world away.

Mark Avis blows a farewell kiss to his wife Rhonda’s coffin 10 days after the massacre | Phil Walter/Getty Images

“The grandchildren wrote in the sand: ‘We love Rhonda and Michelle and we miss you,’” Avis’ mother Pauline Jackson told POLITICO. “It was just beautiful.”

Back in 1999, Strathern, 26, had just been a bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding in New Zealand and decided to make a side trip to visit the gorillas on her way back to her home at the time, in London. She worked for a Japanese bank there, spoke fluent Japanese and had traveled widely.

“She was one of those people that attracted people to her because of her bright personality,” her father, Peter Strathern, said.

Avis, who went to college in Auckland and taught Sunday school there, was also an experienced traveler. She was working in London for a French bank and living with her husband, Mark, who was also on the fateful 1999 trip to see the gorillas.

Jean Strathern recalls she was nervous about her daughter’s Africa trip and tried to talk her out of it. So did an uncle and a local pharmacist who were aware of the genocide in nearby Rwanda a few years earlier. But Michelle Strathern was unconcerned.

“She’d traveled all over … It wasn’t a big deal. It was only a big deal for her mother,” her mother said.

“There was a miscarriage of justice of some sort” — Maurice Jackson, Rhonda Avis’ father

A few days after Michelle Strathern left for her trip, her mother woke up early and plugged in headphones to listen to the radio while her husband slept. She recalled having a feeling something was wrong.

“At 5 or 6 o’clock, I heard news break that people had been captured at … Uganda, going to the gorillas. I thought, ‘Oh my god, Michelle’s got to be there about now,’” Jean Strathern said. “I woke Peter up and said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this next lot of news.’ … I said, ‘Michelle’s there and I actually know she’s no longer with us.’ I’ve got a little bit of psychic in me.”

After an agonizing 24-hour wait, Strathern’s sister called to say she’d heard on the radio that Strathern had died in the attack. “Of course, all hell broke out then. People were ringing the phones and the police and reporters and — it was diabolical,” Jean Strathern said. “I never want to go through it again.”

“We did get Michelle back 11 days later,” Peter recalled.

The killings of the two Kiwi women shocked the country and dominated the news for weeks.

“It was huge. We couldn’t go out the door,” Jean said. “The newspapers were full of it. The TV was full of it.”

The Rwandan gorilla-watching expedition turned into a nightmare for dozens of tourists | Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images

“It became very big,” Avis’ sister, Melissa Jackson, said. “TV crews wanted to report on the funeral.”

Both sets of parents recall being interviewed by police and eventually by the FBI and U.S. prosecutors and providing a formal victim/witness statement. The Stratherns said they favored the death penalty, which caused a stir in liberal New Zealand, which does not allow it.

The Stratherns were set to travel to Washington in 2007 to attend and testify at the trial of the three Rwandans, while Avis’ parents don’t recall making a specific plan. Both couples vividly remember their shock at the judge’s decision to toss out the case over the torture claims.

“We were stunned. We didn’t think that was going to happen,” Jean said. “It was pretty hard to deal with … It meant there was going to be no justice for Michelle. That was really all we were wanting for her, you can’t bring her back.”

“We were rather, and have been, frustrated about that,” Peter Strathern said. “It was chucked out and there was nothing we could do.”

“There was a miscarriage of justice of some sort,” Avis’ father, Maurice Jackson, said.

Renewed pain

Australia’s decision to take in two of the suspects formerly charged with the Ugandan murders has unleashed a fresh round of shock and disbelief for their family members.

“You’re joking,” Jean Strathern said, when told of the development. “You’re absolutely joking. You’re not kidding me, are you? We are absolutely blown away, absolutely. Wow. It makes shivers run down your spine. They’re only two, three hours away on a plane.”

She added: “I hope they’re on one of those islands and they have to swim to get back to Australia. We’re a bit too close for comfort.”

Avis’ mother, Pauline Jackson, said: “That’s a shock … It’s more than a surprise. That’s just two hours away by plane.”

Melissa Jackson said she was baffled the Australians would agree to take the men, given the close bond between her country and its neighbor. “Kiwis and Australians — we’re like cousins,” she said. “To have couple of guys who murdered my sister living in Australia, it’s quite unsettling, to be frank … I’m quite shocked.”

News of the deal is likely to strain ANZAC relations | Scott Barbour/Getty Images

She continued: “These people were tortured, they weren’t just killed. Why do they get to have a life and carry on and my children don’t get to have an aunt? That’s my point of view.”

Mark Avis, who was terrorized in the attack and lost his wife, said he found the Australian decision to take in the alleged perpetrators bizarre.

“How do the Australian government get away letting people like that into their own country?” Avis asked. He said New Zealanders who commit even “the minorest of crimes” are routinely deported from Australia, but Canberra decided to accept two of the men charged in the murderous Ugandan rampage. “It does surprise me a lot,” he said.

Peter Strathern also sounded puzzled that Australia took in the men. “They were facing murder charges, surely they wouldn’t have dispatched them to Australia without advising the Australians of their history?” he said. “I just do not understand.”

Indeed, Australian officials were not coming to the case afresh when the U.S. asked them to take in the Rwandans. In the original investigation, a U.S. prosecutor and FBI agent traveled to New Zealand and Australia to interview victims and worked alongside the Australian Federal Police, who developed a thick file on the case.

Political fallout

The impact these revelations will have on Australia’s federal election Saturday is unclear.

The opposition Labor Party is ahead in the polls, though Morrison’s ruling Liberal-National Coalition has gained some ground recently.

In a country where the two main political parties compete over who has the strongest border protection stance, where elections have been won and lost over refugee policy, the potential for political blowback is high.

POLITICO’s revelations sparked condemnation from across the political spectrum in Australia.

The opposition Labor Party’s Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said he wants the government to “thoroughly” explain the deal and promised his party would demand an urgent briefing if it’s elected Saturday, according to the ABC.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale also condemned the deal on the ABC’s Radio National “Drive” program, citing his party’s opposition to offshore processing under any circumstances.

“If we had done what was our moral and legal obligation and that was to treat people with some decency, to process them here, to close the inhumane, unjust brutal regime that is offshore detention, then we wouldn’t be facing this right now,” Di Natale said.

Pauline Hanson, leader of Australia’s far-right, anti-immigration One Nation party, posted a video statement on Twitter demanding answers.

“I’m really angry with what I’ve just heard: that Australia took two detainees from America, Rwandans, who were involved in the murder of eight tourists in Rwanda,” Hanson said.

“We weren’t told about this, how much other information have we not been told about? This is important, we as Australians know the type of people we are allowing into this country,” she added.

This story was updated to include a statement from the Australian prime minister and further reactions.

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