Last week, while Nauru hosted the annual summit of the Pacific Islands Forum, the government suffered an important legal setback. A judge dismissed all charges in the long-running case of the so-called “Nauru 19” and issued a scathing condemnation of the government.
Australian Judge Geoffrey Muecke excoriated the government in general and Justice Minister David Adeang in particular for actions that he said amounted to “a shameful affront to the rule of law.” He concluded that the government had already determined the defendants guilt, and would do anything it could to convict them.
The case stems from a protest three years ago, after the government suspended three members of parliament for giving interviews critical of the government to foreign media outlets. A crowd that gathered outside the parliament building spilled onto the runway of the airport next door – a flight had to be canceled and some windows were broken by rocks.
The nineteen arrested included members of parliament, a former foreign minister and a former president. In effect, much of Nauru’s political opposition.
Because there are so few jurists among Nauru’s tiny population, judges are often brought in from the outside and Geoffrey Muecke, the retired chief justice of South Australia, was hired specifically to hear this case. After he ordered the government to pay some of the defendants legal expenses this summer, Justice Minister Adeang vowed to extract the funds from the defendants after their convictions – used a racial slur to attack their lawyers, and he threatened the judge.
"Maybe,” he said, “we have to deal with Justice Muecke.”