Just hours out from a federal election, the Australian government is facing questions over its decision to grant humanitarian visas to two Rwandan men accused of the brutal 1999 murder of tourists in Uganda.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, has said that the men were subject to – and cleared – security checks, and on Friday distanced himself further by suggesting the approvals occurred when his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull was prime minister.
Guardian Australia, however, revealed the national security committee of the cabinet – which included both Morrison and the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, was briefed about all aspects of the American refugee swap deal in late 2016, which included the Rwandan men.
Morrison’s claim that they were assessed not to be a risk to the Australian community does not fully answer how they passed all the checks – including those around “character”, which have seen thousands of others rejected or deported.
While the facts of the two men’s cases are complex, many observers have contrasted the Australian government’s approach to other refugees seeking access to Australia – in particular its objections to laws facilitating the medical evacuations of sick people from Manus Island and Nauru.
Both Morrison and Dutton claimed the laws would allow accused murders, paedophiles and rapists to be brought to Australia for medical treatment, where they would likely be held in detention when not in hospital.
The Rwandan men, both in their late 40s, as well as a third man in his 50s, have spent much of the past two decades in the US after they were extradited to face trial over the US tourists’ murders. The prosecution – which had sought the death penalty – quickly fell apart when the judge, Ellen Huvelle, dismissed the case because the “confessions” were clearly the result of torture.
“The Court is painfully aware that two innocent American tourists were brutally killed at Bwindi on March 1, 1999,” wrote Huvelle.
“The government cannot, however, meet its burden where defendants’ statements were extracted only after countless hours of repetitive questioning over a period of many months, during which time they were subjected to periods of solitary confinement, positional torture, and repeated physical abuse.”
Unable to be sent back to Rwanda, where they claimed they faced persecution, the men, Gregoire Nyaminani, François Karake and Leonidas Bimenyimana, languished in US detention until last year, when the US government asked Australia to take them under a largely secret deal to transfer refugees who were problematic to the respective host countries.
Nyaminani and Bimenyimana arrived in Australia in November last year, according to the US media outlet Politico, which broke the story on Thursday.
US court documents reveal detailed claims about the men’s fears of persecution, as well as their involvement in the murder and with rebels.
The men are former first sergeants in the Hutu rebel group Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALIR), an offshoot of Rwandan armed forces and paramilitary groups, including the Interahamwe – which was largely responsible for the 1994 genocide.
US court submissions filed in 2015 opposing the trio’s return to Rwanda say they joined the ALIR after being violently victimised by the Rwandan government and the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA). Bimenyimana’s family was targeted by the RPA, the document said, with 11 people killed.
“As a result of these horrors and the need for safety in numbers, [the men] joined the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda, a group that opposed the RPA,” the court documents said.
Huvelle’s 2007 ruling gave more detail.
Nyaminani joined the Rwandan armed forces in 1992 and was sent to the front to fight RPA insurgents. He was injured and witnessed “multiple atrocities committed by the RPA against civilians”, it said, including torture, dismemberment and hangings.
He fled in 1994 to a refugee camp, which was attacked two years later by the RPA, the judgement continued.
Over the next two years he was captured twice by the RPA, and after his second escape, he joined the ALIR, before being captured in battle in 2001.
Bimenyimana joined the Rwandan armed forces in 1988, eventually fleeing the country in 1994, and returning three years later. He claimed the RPA began harassing his family in attempts to capture him, and killed 11 relatives – including his younger brother, who was beaten to death, and his grandfather, who died when his home was burned down.
Bimenyimana joined the ALIR, and became a second lieutenant, serving until he was captured by the RPA in June 2002.
The Bwindi murders
On the morning of 1 March 1999, ALIR forces attacked the Bwindi forest in Uganda, where tourists were staying in camps and hoping to catch sight of wild gorillas. Huvelle said while the motivations for the attack are disputed, the ALIR unit responsible included a platoon headed by Bimenyimana.
“Seventeen tourists were taken hostage, including four Americans, six British, three New Zealanders and one citizen each from Australia, Canada, Switzerland and Uganda,” Huvelle’s judgement said.
The group was forced to march out of the camp with the ALIR. Two escaped and seven survived.
The others were killed violently – bludgeoned and hacked to death.
“The eight who perished appear to have been killed in three separate incidents” and handwritten notes were found with near or on two of the victims.
One read: “Here lies the Anglo-Saxon who betrayed us, favoring the Nilotics to the detriment of the Bantu cultivator farmers. If you do not learn these lessons, it is because you do not understand. You will now understand by the forces of nature.”
The second read: “This is the punishment of the Anglo-Saxon who sold us. You protect the minority and oppress the majority.”
A survivor, US citizen Mark Ross, was given a third note to deliver to the US ambassador.
“People cannot ignore our problem. You have supported the Tutsi minority in Rwanda in oppressing and massacring the Hutus without constraint. You have looked on as they have killed the Bantus in the DRC. You have encouraged this without same … We are addressing this to the westerners, above all Americans and Anglo-Saxon.”
In 2003 Bimenyimana, Nyaminani, and Karake were arrested and charged, and brought to the US, after a four-year investigation involving law enforcement from at least four countries: Uganda, Rwanda, the UK and the US.
Two days after the attack FBI investigators left Washington for Uganda, joining Ugandan officials and British investigators. Little progress was made until mid-2001 when the RPA captured around 2,000 ALIR members, including Nyaminani, during a “major offensive” by the rebel group.
From November 2001 to February 2003 more than 50 interviews of suspects were conducted at the national police headwaters in Kacyiru by the FBI and Rwandan officials, including 11 of Nyaminani and five of Bimenyimana, as well as an unknown number of interrogations at the Kami camp by Rwandan Capt Alex Kibingo – whose credibility as a witness was harshly criticised by Huvelle.
With the exception of Nyaminani, Rwandan authorities didn’t tell US investigators they had a suspect in custody until after the confession.
Interrogations included different individuals confessing to the same murder, and one confession drawn after 18 hours of interrogation over two days.
Among Huvelle’s observations was that there was an “unmistakable pattern” in the confessions.
“Each defendant initially denied his involvement at Bwindi, but was then held incommunicado at Kami until Kibingo extracted statements that he believed were wanted either by his superiors or the Americans and were needed in order to solve the murders, close the investigation, or support a prosecution,” she said.
“This striking similarity in the course of events, relating to each defendant’s statements, just like the scarring on their bodies, cannot be chalked up to mere coincidence. Rather, the inescapable conclusion is that defendants’ statements to the Rwandans were the product of coercion.”
The prosecution being over, immigration proceedings then began, but later in 2007 the men’s removal was deferred because it was “more likely than not” they would be tortured again if returned to Rwanda.
The US government continued to push to return them, and diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks revealed the efforts the US went to with its Rwandan counterparts, seeking “credible, written assurances” that the government would not mistreat the men.
One cable, from the state department to the embassy in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, noted an existing legal case, which cast doubt on the assurances, being worthwhile. Legal proceedings led by the American Civil Liberties Union petitioned against their return, and there were discussions of third-party options.
The men remained in limbo, incarcerated in Virginia, until the Australian solution presented itself.