Accused asylum seekers protest in Nauru

Asylum seekers accused of rioting in Nauru have been involved in a two-hour stand-off and emotional protests over fears they will not get a fair trial.

Fourteen detainees accused of causing $24,000 damage at the processing centre in September refused to leave their bus outside Nauru's tiny courthouse on Monday after being told they would be represented by a man they had not met, the island's public defender.

During the stand-off, the asylum seekers unfurled banners from the bus windows, declaring "We are not criminals. We are refugees" and "Freedom". Several demanded access to lawyers to defend charges carrying jail terms of two to seven years.

When they did emerge, one man on crutches claimed guards at the centre were responsible for injuries including a torn tendon in his leg and a broken rib, an accusation officials later rejected. Another appeared in pyjamas, seemed disoriented, and walked with the help of a Salvation Army official.

The court was told three others had been charged with the same offences but two had decided to return to their homeland, believed to be Iran, prompting a request to have their charges withdrawn. The third was one of those who had been on a hunger strike and was in the island's hospital, the court was told.

The stand-off ended when Pres-nimes Ekwona, a local lawyer who had been asked by the Refugee Action Coalition to monitor proceedings, agreed to represent those facing charges that include "rioters injuring building", as well as riot and wilful damage.

But Mr Ekwona made it clear he would not be able to represent all of the men in the trials. His aim had been to ensure they received "a fair go" today. "Beyond that, it remains to be seen who will take up their case," he said after proceedings were adjourned.

Resident magistrate Peter Law told the accused they were likely to face trial in February at the earliest and stressed the need for them to be adequately represented. He also asked prosecutors to make a brief of evidence against the men available within a week.

"It's absolutely essential that the defendants are given a proper opportunity to respond to the charges," the magistrate said, adding that it was desirable that people were separately represented.

"The fact is that people should be able to have a legal representative and we cannot run a trial with one person representing everybody. We don't want to be in a position where the prosecution is going to be compromised because people are not properly represented," the magistrate said after the proceedings.

An Immigration Department spokesman said it was up to the accused to make their own arrangements for legal representation, saying it was not the department's practice to fund lawyers for those charges with "this type of offences".

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