Former human rights lawyer Aingimea wins Nauru presidency

WELLINGTON (AFP) – A former human rights lawyer was elected as Nauru’s new President yesterday, following calls for widespread reform in the tiny Pacific nation which Australia uses as a detention centre for asylum seekers.

Lionel Aingimea won a Parliamentary vote for the presidency 12-6 over rival David Adeang, the Nauru government information office said.

It came in the wake of a general election last weekend that saw more than half of Nauru’s 19 lawmakers swept from office, including two-term president Baron Waqa.

Adeang had been considered favourite to take the top job from Waqa, a strong supporter of Australia’s hardline refugee policy.

Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank last year said the country of 11,000 “lurched towards authoritarianism” under Waqa’s leadership.

His government made it difficult for international media to visit Nauru to report on conditions facing asylum seekers and pursued domestic political opponents through the courts, accusing them of rioting during a 2015 protest outside Parliament.

Speaking before Aingimea’s election to the presidency, opposition figure Mathew Batsiua said the general election was “a decisive win for change”.

“Clearly people have had enough of… a government that’s been cracking down on the rights and freedoms of people,” he told Radio New Zealand. “People want a government that’s more fair and that doesn’t leave people behind.”

Whether Aingimea will prove a reformist is unclear. The Australian-trained lawyer previously worked as a senior trainer with the Regional Rights Resource Team, a Fiji-based body aimed at promoting human rights in the Pacific.

However, Aingimea subsequently worked in the Waqa administration, first as a senior public servant, then as an Assistant Minister for Justice and Border Control.