Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that two former Rwandan rebel soldiers accused of murdering Western tourists with machetes have come to Australia under the US “people swap” refugee deal.
But he has revealed the men, who claimed their confessions were extracted during torture, were cleared of the crimes by Australian security checks.
“They’re in Australia. And they were cleared of those particular matters in terms of Australia’s assessment of those particular matters. And I can confirm that,” Mr Morrison told the ABC’s 7.30.
“The two were … subject to the security and character assessments [to determine if] they were involved in any war criminal crimes and that security process cleared those individuals.”
The shocking revelation of a secret deal to grant residency to the alleged killers was published on Thursday by US news outlet Politico.
The deal struck by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama was almost derailed by US President Donald Trump in a now infamous phone call that was later leaked to the media.
The men were charged after the abduction of 31 Western tourists – and the brutal axe and machete murders of eight of them – by Hutu rebels in Uganda in 1999.
The Politico story speculates Australia might have offered to take two of the men, who had been detained in the US for 15 years, to “nudge along” the people swap in which the US agreed to resettle refugees from Australia’s offshore refugee processing centres.
But it also highlights concerns the men’s confessions were extracted under torture.
Two Rwandan men once accused of butchering tourists sat in American legal limbo for years — until Australia agreed to welcome them https://t.co/ULcTpjERhg
— POLITICO Magazine (@POLITICOMag) May 16, 2019
At the National Press Club on Thursday, PM Scott Morrison was asked: “Where are they? And isn’t this utterly scandalous?”
“I would simply say this – every single person that comes to Australia, under any such arrangements is the subject of both character and security assessments by Australian security agencies and our immigration authorities,” Mr Morrison said.
“I don’t intend to make a commentary on allegations that have been made in open source information. But simply to assure Australians that they are the processes that we undertake.”
After a journalist interjected to ask ‘Are they in custody?’, Mr Morrison replied “I have given you my answer”.
Politco magazine reports that the men’s alleged crime was so horrific that US prosecutors charged three of them under terrorism laws, extracted them from Rwanda and then took the rare step of demanding the death penalty.
However, the prosecution collapsed in 2006 following a legal ruling that the men’s confessions had been obtained through torture.
The men then spent years in limbo, trying to claim asylum as refugees in the United States and fighting attempts by authorities to return them to Rwanda.
Politico reports that, after more than a decade in detention, the men “packed up their things at an immigration detention centre in rural Virginia and prepared for a trip that must have been almost impossible for them to fathom. After more than 15 years in US custody, Leonidas Bimenyimana and Gregoire Nyaminani were headed for new lives in Australia”.
The magazine says Australia rejected the third man, Francois Karake, on character grounds because he had been involved in a fight with a jail guard during his time in US detention.
Karake told Politico he was considered for asylum and was visited by an Australian official to discuss the plan.
“She said the Australian government will allow me to resettle in Australia,” Karake said. “She asked me questions for more than two hours – whether I would be happy to be an Australian. I said, ‘Yes’.”
“She said the Australian government will do everything possible to protect me and give me the help – for a full year.”
Karake’s lawyers reportedly believed he might have been rejected because he repeatedly hit a guard over the head during a 2015 fight.
The people swap deal with the US was the subject of a now infamous phone call between Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump.
“We are taking people from the previous administration that they were very keen on getting out of the United States. We will take more. We will take anyone that you want us to take,” Mr Turnbull said at the time.
Asked a second time on Thursday for an assurance or guarantee that no suspected murderers had been allowed into Australia under his government’s watch, Mr Morrison again dodged the question.
“I will repeat my answer – I can assure you that the full security and character test assessments were undertaken by our security agencies in relation to all persons who have entered Australia,” he said.
Mr Morrison also told journalists at the National Press Club that Saturday’s election was closer than voters realised.
“This will be a close election. That is not something, I think, anyone was writing two months ago, six months ago, eight months ago,” he said.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that this election is run and done. Don’t let anyone tell you that your vote doubt count because it – doesn’t count because it will. Every single vote will count,” he said.