The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court has declared an inquiry into the Manus Island detention centre null and void because of perceived bias.
The court unanimously decided that Justice David Cannings, who started the inquiry, could not, according to PNG law, also preside over the proceedings. He also failed to disclose that an expert witness was his friend.
Cannings began the inquiry in February last year to establish whether human rights guarantees in PNG's constitution were being breached by the detention of asylum seekers.
Amnesty International spokesperson Kate Schuetze said: "The case may have far-reaching consequences for human rights protection for all people in Papua New Guinea.
"The same powers and process has been used to investigate a number of human rights abuses, including appalling conditions in the prisons and police brutality.
"Before the inquiry into the Australian-run immigration detention centre on Manus Island, these powers of the court had not been challenged.”
In a further blow, documents issued by Papua New Guinea’s Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority say that once asylum seekers have been told their asylum claims are rejected they will be deported “as soon as practicable”.
The documents also warn that those who cannot be returned to their home country will be held indefinitely, either in the detention centre or in correctional facilities, until they can get a visa to another country.
This will apply to “double negatives” — asylum seekers whose refugee status has been denied and who have also lost their appeal. There are 50 “double negative” people in Manus Island detention. Up to 400 people have had their first application for refugee status denied.
While asylum seekers’ rights are being diminished, it seems PNG citizens are also being denied justice. The rape of a PNG woman by detention centre staff has stirred hostility from the PNG government. The woman alleges three Australian Wilson Security employees drugged then raped her.
Police said attempted rape, indecent exposure and sexual assault charges were likely. But centre management sacked the men and returned them to Australia before police could question them.
Manus Island police commander Alex N’Drasal threatened that if the men were not returned to PNG by July 30 he would “go ahead and arrest all those responsible for deporting them out of Papua New Guinea”. But the deadline passed without incident.
The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection said the suggestion that the men were removed to avoid prosecution, or without consultation with PNG authorities, was “simply wrong”.
Manus Island MP Ronnie Knight told Guardian Australia the incident entrenched the view among locals the Australian employees are above the law.
In stark contrast, two PNG men, G4S guard Louie Efi and Salvation Army worker Joshua Kaluvia, were charged with the murder of asylum seeker Reza Barati during an attack on February 17 that injured 70 others.
Knight said: “Our people see it as if our local guys are being made scapegoats for this … why would they not come back, just to clear their name?
“At the end of the day they have to respect the sovereignty of Manus Island and of Papua New Guinea. These are our laws and you can’t just run away from this kind of thing.
“We have people from Papua New Guinea in this situation in Australia who Australia has thrown the book at. Why should these Australians be allowed to get away?”
In response, PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill ordered a drug and alcohol crackdown at the Manus Island immigration detention centre. “This is not the first time we have heard of inappropriate expatriate behaviour as a result of alcohol consumption and this has to stop,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nauru’s president Baron Waqa defended Australia’s other offshore detention centre and blamed refugee advocates for tarnishing the reputation of Nauru.
“Our hosting of the Australian processing centres for asylum seekers has made us a target for those who are lobbying the Australian government to change their policy,” he said. “We have endured these attacks shamelessly based on their belief that our differences make us inferior. By another name, it is pure bullying.”
Waqa did not provide evidence of “attacks” by refugee advocates directed at Nauru in general, rather than directed at those involved in actual attacks on asylum seekers.
Australia also faces a bad reputation for its now internationally infamous abhorrent refugee policy. Many concerned Australians are rightfully ashamed of this policy. Nauru now finds itself facing the same stigma, not because refugee advocates are exposing abuses, but because it is a willing subject of Australia’s refugee policy.
Indeed, refugee advocates fought against the establishment of these offshore detention centres in the first place. Any blame should lie with the Australian government and the Nauruan government that accepted the centre.
Waqa went on to praise conditions in the centre, saying: “The processing centre for asylum seekers is world class and far exceeds the standard of many refugee camps across the world. Asylum seekers enjoy an “open centre’’ policy and are regularly seen swimming, dining out and enjoying a lifestyle that is safe, far safer than the lands they left.”
Using other refugee camps as a benchmark for what is acceptable only leads to a dangerous lowering of standards. It also ignores reports of sexual abuse and physical violence, including the Moss Review that found conditions in the detention centre were certainly not “world class”.
It seems Waqa’s statements are part of his government’s defence of hosting the centre. Other examples include raising journalist visa fees from $200 to $8000 in January last year; banning social media sites such as Facebook, which many asylum seekers depend on for communication with the outside world; and the introduction of a law that stifles criticism of the government, with the potential to jail political opponents and asylum seekers protesting conditions.