April 26, 2013
AN all-star legal team led by high-profile human rights barrister Julian Burnside QC has been assembled for a constitutional challenge to Labor’s asylum-seeker processing centre on Nauru.
The Australian has confirmed Mr Burnside will head up the legal challenge, which will unfold in Nauru’s Supreme Court and could have far-reaching ramifications for the future of offshore processing.
He will be joined by former US Marine Corps lieutenant colonel Michael “Dan” Mori, who defended accused terrorism supporter and Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks, and human rights lawyer George Newhouse, a one-time federal Labor candidate who represented victims of the 2010 Christmas Island asylum-seeker boat crash.
Mr Burnside declined to speak about the case yesterday, but Mr Mori likened the situation on Nauru to the US military detention camp on Guantanamo.
“One similarity between Guantanamo and the situation on Nauru is the inability of detainees there to get access to legal assistance and help,” he said.
“Whether you agree with offshore processing or not, the issue that should apply to everybody is, if you are locked up, you should have access to legal help.”
The Australian understands that the prominent legal team, which also includes Sydney-based barrister Jay Williams, issued a writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court of Nauru on Wednesday.
It is understood the onus will now be on Nauru’s Secretary of Justice and Solicitor General to prove the detention of the asylum-seekers is legitimate.
If Mr Burnside and his team are successful, the detention of asylum-seekers on Nauru will be found unconstitutional and the capacity of a Labor or Coalition government to send boat arrivals to Pacific Solution centres will be in doubt.
The broader constitutional challenge is an extension of the defence of 10 asylum-seekers on Nauru who are facing charges of riot and wilful damage relating to an alleged incident on the island in September last year.
A statement from the government of Nauru released after Wednesday’s court hearing said Mr Williams, who travelled to the island to represent the 10 asylum-seekers, told the court he had been refused access to the processing centre by the Department of Immigration, which prevented him from interviewing his clients.
It is understood Mr Williams was initially unable to access the centre but was permitted to interview the asylum-seekers offsite.
A spokeswoman for the Immigration Department said meetings between Mr Williams and his clients were facilitated off-site all day Tuesday and again Wednesday morning.
“At no time was the lawyer prevented from meeting his clients on this occasion; to the contrary, centre staff assisted and facilitated extensive meetings,” the spokeswoman said.
There are about 420 men in the Nauru detention centre, with another 270 men, women and children being housed at Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
The challenge to the Nauru offshore processing centre came as another two boats, together carrying more than 110 asylum-seekers, were intercepted near Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef.