Sprent Dabwido, a former President of Nauru, died yesterday at the age of 46. While in office, he reached agreement with Australia to re-open Nauru’s controversial detention center. In a deathbed interview, he described that as “a deal with the devil.”
Amid a surge of rickety boats carrying migrants towards Australia in 2012, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard reached agreements to house the migrants offshore with the governments of two impoverished neighbors – Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
The detention camps became notorious for conditions described by the United Nations as inhumane and, in interviews before his death, Sprent Dabwido accepted some measure of responsibility for the misery: “I thought I was helping Australia, I thought I was helping the refugees themselves,” he told Australia’s Network Ten last month. Describing the legal limbo that detainees have endured, he said, “Eventually it becomes torture when you don’t have a future.”
After leaving office in 2013, Dabwido became the leading figure in the opposition group known as the Nauru 19. They were arrested at an anti-government demonstration and charged with rioting; after years in and out of court, an independent Australian judge assigned to the case described the government’s conduct as “a shameful affront to the rule of law” and dismissed all charges.
Following a diagnosis of throat cancer, Dabwido said the government denied him permission to travel until it was too late. When he finally did reach Australia, he became an asylum seeker himself.
As a young man, Sprent Dabwido was a national champion weight lifter; and while his time as President will always be defined by the detention camp deal, he was also active in the international campaign against climate change.