In 1999, eight tourists were brutally murdered in a violent attack involving machetes and axes while gorilla-watching in a Ugandan rainforest. The group included two New Zealanders, Michelle Strathern and Rhonda Avis, as well as two Americans and four others. Three Rwandan men belonging to the Hutu rebel group, the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda, reportedly confessed. The men were sent to the U.S. to be tried, where they were to face the death penalty for the heinous act.
However, the case against the men fell apart during the 2006 pre-trial hearing in which the judge ruled that the confessions were obtained through torture in Rwandan detention centres during the Rwandan Civil War. Since then, the three men have been incarcerated in the U.S. detention system, as they have claimed that they are unable to return to Rwanda on the grounds of persecution. Material published by WikiLeaks revealed that the U.S. sought assurances from Rwandan authorities that the men would be safe to return home. However, various human rights groups argued that the return of the men to their country was against the U.S.’s international obligations.
U.S. outlet Politico has recently revealed that two of the three men, Leonidas Bimenyimana and Gregoire Nyaminani, were transferred from the U.S. to Australia as humanitarian migrants last November, and have subsequently resettled into Australian communities. It has been alleged that the transfer is the result of a secret ‘people swap’ deal between U.S. and Australian governmental authorities.
The third suspect, Francois Karake, remains in U.S. detention. Politico reported that Australia refused him because of a physical altercation with a U.S. jail guard in 2015.
Scott Morrison, the current Australian Prime Minister, refused to go into the details of the circumstances concerning these three men, however, he did comment that all refugees are screened by security agencies and “that included checks relating to national security, criminality, war crimes and crimes against humanity.” John Coyne, an Australian security expert, acknowledged that the men were never convicted of any crimes and had spent more than a decade in administrative detention in the US.
The transfer has however deeply shocked the families of the two New Zealander victims. Jean Strathen, Michelle Strathern’s mother, said “It makes shivers run down your spine. They’re only two, three hours away on a plane.” Mark Avis, Rhona Avis’s husband, stated: “The fact that they have got technically a free life, so to speak, to say I am disappointed would be a very, very big understatement.” He also said that he was not told by the New Zealand nor the Australian government that the two men had been released and transferred.
The arrangement appears to go against the recent Australian Coalition’s “tough on borders” approach, particularly on foreign criminals. The Politico report points to inherently complex questions as to the rights of war criminals, the process of justice within contexts of civil unrest, and the controversial obligations on states in relation to refugees. Nevertheless, the report does have the potential to undermine the credibility of the Coalition’s campaign on the dawn of the Australian federal elections.