No Honeymoon For Refugees


Last month the man dubbed "the honeymoon killer," Gabe Watson was deported to his country of citizenship, the United States, after the Australian government sought assurance that he, if retried in the US, would not face the death penalty. 

Convicted of the manslaughter of his bride as they honeymooned on the Great Barrier Reef in 2003, Watson had been serving an 18-month sentence in a Queensland prison. Back in the US, the family of his murdered bride petitioned for him to be deported to the United States where he could be retried by the Alabama authorities and, possibly, face the death penalty.

The Australian government delayed the deportation of Watson while they sought assurance from the Alabama authorities that they would not sentence him to such a fate. Since the death penalty was completely abolished in Australia in 1985, Australia has held an anti-death penalty stance. As recently as 2007, Australia voted for a global moratorium on the death penalty at the United Nations’ General Assembly. The government’s concern seemed well-founded.

As we are saturated with news of Watson’s story, there are a number of refugees who face deportation and a possible death penalty if sent back to their country of origin sitting in various detention centres around Australia.

Indeed, it looks like our moral stance on the death penalty is quite flexible — as was highlighted three weeks prior to the deportation of Watson when a Villawood inmate was so despondent at being deported to face the prospect a death penalty, he committed suicide.

The victim was 41-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker, Ahmad al Eqabi, a teacher and truck driver in Karbala in southern Iraq, who arrived in Australia by boat 12 months ago. He claimed that he faced persecution from the Shia Mahdi Army in Iraq.

According to Immigration minister Chris Bowen, he was twice rejected for asylum in Australia and facing deportation. The suicide came in the wake of another only two months prior: that of Fijian national Josefa Raulani who took his own life at Villawood detention centre.

Al Eqabi is only one of the many asylum seekers who face deportation despite fears of death in their home country. In 2006, the Edmund Rice Centre (ERC) released a report titled "Deported to Danger", which investigated the fate of asylum seekers whose claims were rejected and were subsequently deported. The report found that 39 of the 41 asylum seekers interviewed had been deported to danger: persecution, torture and imprisonment. Some had been killed.

The Australian government sought to ensure the security of Watson — who had been convicted of a criminal offence under Australian law — from the death penalty, while no such assurances are sought for those whose nation’s human rights records we have condemned. Surely Australia has a responsibility to protect the lives of those who seek asylum here.

Complicating the deportations of "the honeymoon killer" and the Iraqi asylum seeker is the issue of the willingness of each to be deported. After receiving assurance from the Alabama authorities that the death penalty would not be applied, Watson indicated that he would no longer be returning to the US voluntarily. This, according to Bowen, meant that the government needed to test and check whether the assurances from Alabama were good enough. Unsure if they were, the government sought assurance from the highest level — the US federal government.

Given Australia’s history of opposing the death penalty, this concern is understandable. Why then did the Australian government fail to advocate against the death penalty for the Bali 9?

According to a key provision of the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention — to which Australia is a signatory — a refugee should not be returned to a country where he or she fears persecution.

Clearly, Australia is not honouring its duty to asylum seekers. Australia needs to do more to investigate the fears and concerns asylum seekers have about being deported to the countries they have fled. To do anything less is to send innocent people to face the death sentence — something that hardly sits well with our anti-death penalty stance.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.