A sweeping new criminal law on Nauru island could see political opponents and asylum seekers who protest against their conditions jailed for up to seven years.
The new offence under section 244A of the Nauru Criminal Code could see anyone who “coerces, intimidates, harasses, or causes emotional distress to a person” jailed if the statement is “likely to threaten national defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health”.
This comes as part of an escalating series of attacks on the judiciary and on political opposition on the island, which former judges and legal experts have warned point towards a serious erosion of democracy.
The law was passed on Tuesday, and was introduced to parliament by the justice minister, David Adeang. People on Nauru who also use language that is “threatening, abusive or insulting in nature and with the intent to stir up racial, religious or political hatred” could also be subject to charges under the new offence.
Adeang said in his second reading speech: “We have to appreciate the constructive critique that comes from our people but as of late, this freedom has been tainted with somewhat vile and tasteless words that have no place in our country and amongst our traditional and Christian values.”
Over the past 18 months Nauru has suspended several opposition MPs from parliament, deported and prevented a number of members of the judiciary from undertaking their work without interference.
Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesman Greg Barns said the new law could see asylum seekers held in the Australian detention centre on the island jailed for protesting about their conditions.
“That’s a chilling amendment. It’s clearly designed to prevent asylum seekers, advocates for asylum seekers making statements about their conditions on Nauru. It will be used to jail asylum seekers who protest about the intolerable conditions that they endure,” Barns said.
He said the section appeared similar to sedition laws in Malaysia, which Australia has in the past criticised.
“One would have thought that the Australian government would be extremely concerned about the insertion of a provision which would make it extraordinary difficult for any person in Nauru to make any kind of critical statements of the government,” he said.
Peter Law, a former magistrate on Nauru who was deported from the island in January 2014 by the government, said the new law was a further worrying sign of decay of democracy on Nauru.
“In my view it’s the last vestige of democracy out the window. The parliamentarians who would have commented or criticised this bill have been prevented from doing so because they’ve got no entry to parliament, they’ve been suspended,” Law said.
“Now that the bill has been passed they’re in a position where if they comment or criticise it the criminal sanctions may very well be invoked against them.”