Obituary: Sprent Dabwido, Nauru's former president

Sprent Dabwido addresses the UN in 2012 Image copyright Shutterstock
Image caption Sprent Dabwido addresses the UN in 2012

When Sprent Dabwido died on Wednesday aged 46, it was in rural eastern Australia, 2,300 miles from home.

His home was the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii, which he led as president for two years.

To Nauruan politician Squire Jeremiah, Dabwido embodied what it meant to be a part of the third smallest country in the world, which has a population of just over 11,000.

"He was a very a patriotic person," Mr Jeremiah told the BBC on a crackling line from Nauru. "Even if we are small, even if we are weak, he encouraged us to stick up for the love of the nation and the country."

Mr Jeremiah has been embroiled in a long-running case brought by the current Nauru government against many of its critics, including Dabwido. Mr Jeremiah said he was prevented from travelling to see his friend as he died from cancer because the authorities refused to return his passport.

"We felt we missed out on that important dying request from our friend just because the government denied us our very right to have a Nauruan passport," he said.

Born in 1972, Dabwido was the second son of former parliamentarian Audi Dabwido.

Before following in the footsteps of his father, Dabwido was a weightlifter and won the national championships in 1995 and 1996. He picked up a silver medal at the 1995 Samoa Games and competed for Nauru at the 1995 World Championships in China.

Dabwido was a founding member of the Nauru First political party, and was elected to parliament in 2004.

He served as telecommunications minister and oversaw the introduction of mobile phones to the island. The government declared the first day of mobile phone service on 1 September 2009 a national holiday.

Dabwido became president in November 2011 after moving a vote of no confidence against Freddie Pitcher, who had been in charge for just six days.

Image copyright Christian Hearn
Image caption Dabwido said he deeply regretted allowing Australia to send asylum seekers to his island

During his two-year tenure, Dabwido was involved in one of the biggest and most controversial stories in Nauru's history.

In 2012, he struck a deal with the Australian government for it to deport asylum seekers to his island while their applications were processed, in an effort to deter refugees from reaching Australia by sea.

Shortly before signing the deal with then-Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, Dabwido told The Sydney Morning Herald that he preferred open-air camps in which asylum seekers were "free to roam the island, to go to schools here and to enjoy the public facilities".

The reality turned out to be very different.

At one point, more than 1,200 asylum seekers were held in detention centres on Nauru in what Amnesty International called a "cruel system of abuse with a policy that is intentionally designed to harm people". Australian politicians maintained that asylum seekers were treated well on Nauru.

At least five people died in detention, including Omid Masoumali, a 23-year-old Iranian refugee who set himself on fire.

Since March this year, no refugees have been kept in detention centres, although around 350 are now living within the community on Nauru.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption About 11,000 people live on Nauru, seen here in its entirety

Speaking three weeks ago after his doctor had given him just days or weeks to live, Dabwido admitted that the biggest decision of his political career had been a mistake.

"I regret my decision at that time," he told Australian news show The Project.

"In doing that we have turned our country upside down. I thought I was doing the right thing but deaths still occurred, not at the sea, but on my island."

His hopes the deal would benefit both refugees and the Nauru economy had been proven painfully wrong, he said. The experience for refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru had "become torture".

"I cannot take full responsibility for it but I do have my share in it," he said.

It was "a deal with the devil," he added.

Mr Jeremiah said that his friend was attempting to help the refugees.

"When people have discovered Nauru they have been welcomed by the Nauruans. That's why we were called Pleasant Island," he said, in reference to the name British sea captain John Fearn, a whale hunter, coined after sailing past the island from New Zealand.

"I think that's the approach Sprent had to the deal and... if we were informed that in the future the deal would lead to fatalities, we would not have accepted it."

Dabwido lost office in 2013 but was re-elected as an opposition MP.

Instead of quietly fading back into island life, he was outspoken in criticising his successor Baron Waqa, accusing the new government of corruption and abuse of power.

Things came to a head in 2015 when Dabwido and a group of other critics were charged with rioting following an anti-government protest outside parliament.

The protests were over the expulsion from parliament of five MPs - including Dabwido and Mr Jeremiah - for criticising the government to foreign journalists.

The demonstrations involved hundreds of supporters of the deposed parliamentarians and spilled on to the runway of the airport, forcing a plane to be diverted. Some pelted the parliament building with rocks, smashing windows.

The group came to be known as the Nauru 19, with Dabwido as its leader.

Image copyright Christian Hearn
Image caption The Nauru 19 and their lawyers

The case was eventually thrown out by an independent Australian judge who called the actions of the Nauru government "a shameful affront to the rule of law". The Nauru justice system uses foreign judges and magistrates because of the country's tiny number of legal professionals.

A new court of appeal was established in Nauru after the judgement, meaning the government could continue its pursuit of the Nauru 19.

During the legal battle with the government, Dabwido fell seriously ill.

A cancerous tumour was detected in March 2018 and it required treatment that was not available in Nauru.

Dabwido said the Nauru government refused to hand over his passport - or claimed not to know of its whereabouts - until September. The Nauru government did not respond to requests for comment from the BBC.

Once officials finally handed over his passport, he travelled to Thailand for treatment and then - like many of those housed in Nauru's holding centres - he sought asylum in Australia. But it was too late.

"He was diagnosed in March," Christian Hearn, an Australian lawyer representing the Nauru 19, told the BBC. "The months that followed were critical to beating the cancer. His doctor told him he could have been saved.

"By the time he had arrived in Australia it was tragically too late."

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Fellow Nauru 19 member Mathew Batsiua was unequivocal in laying the responsibility for the death of his friend at the feet of the Nauru government.

"Today the Waqa government and the MPs who have supported them have the blood of a former president on their hands," he said.

"Our country's motto is God's Will First, yet this government seeks to play the role of God. This is not the Nauruan way."

In his final interview, the former president said he had gone through the proper legal channels and would have returned to his country if ordered to do so.

In one of his final wishes, Dabwido held a commitment ceremony to his long-term partner Luci in Sydney last month.

"It's a dream come true," he told Australian news show The Project. "I always thought I'd propose to her on the top of the Eiffel Tower but the cafeteria at the Prince of Wales Randwick Hospital still did the same, she still said yes."

Mr Batsiua, who stayed in close touch with Dabwido via social media in the final weeks, said his friend died in the way he lived.

"He was brave, outspoken and always kept his sense of humour, even in the worst times," he said.

"Sprent was a truth teller until the end."

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