Australia

Former Nauru president Sprent Dabwido dies aged 46

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Sprent Dabwido died in Australia while receiving cancer treatment.

Former president of Nauru Sprent Dabwido, who signed a 2012 deal with Australia to resume off-shore processing in his country, has died aged 46.

Mr Dabwido died in Armidale, NSW, on Wednesday after receiving cancer treatment in Australia.

He was the head of the Pacific nation between 2011 and 2013 and signed the 2012 offshore processing deal with the then-prime minister Julia Gillard.

In a statement provided to SBS News, Mr Dabwido was called a "leading member of the 'Nauru 19' political protest group ... an outspoken campaigner for the rule of law and democracy in the island republic".

"His early death comes after years of persecution from the current Nauru Government, including the denial of cancer treatment," the statement reads.

Mr Dabwido

After losing office in 2013 and becoming an opposition MP, Mr Dabwido accused the government of corruption and abuse of power.

He fled Nauru last year to come to Australia for medical treatment and apply for asylum.

In 2015, he and others were charged with rioting over an anti-government protest outside parliament and he ended up having to fight a bitter court case, dubbed the 'Nauru 19', to clear his name.

Last year, a scathing court judgment cleared him of any wrongdoing, with esteemed Australian judge Geoffrey Muecke, who was sitting on Nauru’s Supreme Court, ruling it “a shameful affront of the rule of law”.

In Australia, the leader was best known for his part in the offshore processing deal.

In 2012, Mr Dabwido struck the deal with then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard for his impoverished island nation to once more be used for offshore processing.

The former president told SBS News in March it was a deal he regretted.

“It is time to end processing on Nauru ... it is hurting Nauru as much as it is hurting Australia, it has turned my island upside down,” he told SBS.

In April, he described the deal as a "deal with the devil" and "torture" and said he prayed for forgiveness on his deathbed.

Mr Dabwido with Julia Gillard

“The arrangement I had, I thought I was helping, but it’s been changed. It became from a helping hand to a closed fist, and that’s a big regret,” he said.

“I thought it good policy because eventually, they get in (to Australia). 

“But along the way it’s been changed and (Australia) says people will never get in. The decision made by this Australian government is not the one I signed.” 

He maintained until his death that the “evil” Nauru government was the cause of his death by denying him overseas medical treatment by withholding his passport until it was too late.

It is an allegation the Nauru government has repeatedly denied.

“Reports in the Australian media about the health of former president of Nauru, Sprent Dabwido … have contained misinformation and accusations clearly designed to attack the Government of Nauru,” it said in a statement in March.

In September 2018 his passport was returned and he flew to Australia for treatment and to seek asylum. In February he was told his cancer was terminal. 

“Today the (Baron) Waqa government and the MPs who have supported them have the blood of the former president on their hands,” friend and former MP Mathew Batsiua said following Mr Dabwido’s death.

“I can say Sprent died the way he lived. He was brave, outspoken and always kept his sense of humour, even in the worst times. 

“Sprent was a truth teller until the end.”  

The irony of coming to Australia and seeking asylum was not lost on Mr Dabwido. 

“I never thought I’d be one of the people lining up to be an asylum seeker, especially when I gave the go-ahead so [Australia] can use Nauru,” he told SBS after his arrival.

“I didn’t jump any queue, I didn’t go backdoor. Hopefully the Australian public will understand that.”

The basis of Mr Dabwido’s claim for asylum was that the current Nauru government categorised him as an “enemy of the state” and threatened him with prison.

He died awaiting a Nauru Court of Appeal decision on overturning a permanent stay of proceeding against him, Mr Batisua and other members of the so-called ‘Nauru 19’.

The son of a parliamentarian, Mr Dabwido first represented Nauru on the international stage as a super-heavyweight weightlifter, helping establish what has become the country’s trademark sport.

During his 18-months in office, he was also a leading voice in highlighting the threat of climate change to the Pacific, including in a landmark speech at the UN General Assembly.

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