In a dramatic and at times bizarre hearing, the man behind the claims stepped into the spotlight. Max Chalmers reports. A whistleblower who worked in the Nauru immigration detention centre has gone public with allegations that waterboarding took place in the compound and that cable-ties were used to chain asylum seekers to beds and fences
Jon Nichols worked in the island’s Australian backed detention centre for almost two years, and says on two or three occasions he observed asylum seekers leaving a tent in which he believes they were waterboarded. While he did not witness an actual incident of waterboarding, he said staff later boasted about performing it.
Nichols told a Senate Inquiry this evening that the asylum seekers targeted were Palestinian, and he observed them leaving ‘tent 11’ coughing up water.
“I’ve seen members of the [Wilson] Emergency Response Team exit tents and later I’ve seen asylum seekers come out of these tents, come out of them covered in water, coughing,” he said.
Nichols was not a member of the Emergency Response Team, but said other Wilson guards shared downtime with the group, and that they had openly discussed such incidents. He said he had witnessed an asylum seeker being zip tied to a fence.
“The ERT quite openly bragged about it,” he said.
Nichols said some Wilson staff, many of whom are former military employees, still harbour hatred toward asylum seekers “who they perceive to be the enemy, [but are] the people they are supposed to be providing care for”.
As an example he told the Inquiry committee that asylum seekers were abused if they turned up to meals without their identification.
“I’ve seen with my own eyes when asylum seekers have forgotten to bring their identification card with them and they have been verbally harassed, bullied, subjected to a thug-like approach from members of security,” he said.
Nichols also told the Inquiry he had been directed by supervisors to shred documents prepared by other service providers, and that the practice was so common the shredding machine was referred to as “file 13”.
A member of the army reserve himself, Nichols was pushed on his evidence by LNP Senators, and the hearing took a bizarre turn as his lawyer became increasingly agitated, interrupting questions from the committee and appearing to direct Nichols in his answers.
Despite the strange scenes, Nichols remained calm, though declined to answer questions about an ongoing legal dispute with Wilson.
Appearing after Nichols, staff from Wilson’s management team strenuously denied the accusations, saying not so much as a sniff of a rumour had existed in the camp in regards to allegations of waterboarding.
John Rogers, Wilson’s General Executive Manager, described the allegations of torture in the centre as “absurd” and “preposterous”.
However, he was more circumspect when responding to questions about evidence that a Wilson staff member lied to a Nauru court and fabricated claims of an assault against an asylum seeker.
This morning Fairfax revealed that audio collected by Wilson recorded a staff member confessing they had lied about the incident, misleading a Nauruan court and endangering the freedom of the asylum seeker in the process.
According to the report they had done so to ruin the asylum seeker’s chances of being resettled as a refugee.
Rogers told the Inquiry the staff member had now been stood aside pending a second investigation into the incident but that they were still on the company’s pay.
“With the benefit of hindsight there are aspects of the original investigation that we would review,” he said.
He added the incident did not reflect the culture the company had tried to build.
Rogers told the Inquiry that Nichols was currently pursuing legal action against Wilson regarding a workplace injury as well as the circumstances of his departure from the company, which finalised in early August 2015.
Nichols told the Inquiry other members of staff could support his allegations, and provided a list of names to the Committee