Scott Morrison was aware of the secret swap involving two Rwandan refugees accused of murdering eight tourists – two years before they were accepted in Australia, it has been revealed.
Accused terrorist Leonidas Bimenyimana and Gregoire Nyaminani were granted refuge as part of a deal brokered between former PM Malcolm Turnbull and former US President Barack Obama in late 2016.
The men, former members of a Hutu rebel army, were accused of killing tourists with machetes and axes in a Ugandan rainforest in 1999.
However, the US advised the Australian government that the men were no longer considered threats.
In return, the US accepted up to 1250 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru.
Details of the deal were disclosed to members of the national security committee including then treasurer, Scott Morrison, home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, and foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, the Guardian has reported.
Mr Morrison, who had recently come under pressure to explain why Australia agreed to take the alleged killers, addressed reporters on Friday.
He said government security agencies under Turnbull’s term reviewed the allegations between April and July last year and determined the men did not pose security risks.
‘In these cases … these specific allegations were reviewed by our security agencies and by our immigration authorities, and they were not found to be upheld in their view, and as a result they were allowed to come to Australia’, Mr Morrison said.
He failed to explain why the family of the victims were not notified the men were in the country, citing privacy concerns for refugees.
David Roberts, the father of a 23-year-old killed in the Uganda attack, told ABC he only learned the men were living in the country after watching the news on TV.
‘After 20 years, you start to get over it a little bit and get on with life a little easier, and this has just brought it all back, really totally unnecessarily’, he said.
Bimenyimana and Nyaminani arrived in Australia in November after being accepted as ‘humanitarian’ entrants, or refugees, US site Politico reported.
The men were previously arrested under terrorism charges and had faced the death penalty.
However, the case was dropped in 2006 when a US judge found their confession was obtained under torture and they were held in a Virginia immigration detention facility.
On Thursday, Mr Morrison did not comment directly on the case saying: ‘[I] simply assure Australians that they are the processes that we undertake and these are the same security agencies that have thwarted 15 terrorist attacks’.
He was pressured by reporters on Thursday, but said he doesn’t ‘intend to make a commentary on allegations that have been made’.
‘Simply to assure Australians that they are the processes that we undertake and these are the same security agencies that I worked with five-and-a-half years ago to put an end to the border chaos that we inherited,’ Mr Morrison said.
‘Matters of national security aren’t things that I have ever canvassed in specifics in open forums such as this. Allegations, I know, have been made out there in the public forum.’
‘But what I can assure Australians of is this – our government will always ensure that those character and national security considerations are undertaken for anyone who seeks to enter this country.’
The men are accused of killing eight vacationers who were on a gorilla-watching tour at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Among them were two Americans, Susan Miller and husband Rob Haubner, two New Zealanders and four British tourists.
Expecting to wake up by the sounds of the forest, the tourists woke up to gunfire and saw 100 to 150 fighters armed with AK-47s as well as self-made weapons and spears.
The fighters charged into the grounds and collected terrified vacationers and within minutes they were taken prisoner.
The rebels were members of the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda, who wanted to end their aid to Tutsi-led government in Rwanda.
Up to 17 people were taken and forced to walk through the jungle without shoes, with one American woman escaping by faking an asthma attack and others left behind because they were too slow.
At the time, New Zealand Foreign Ministry officials said Rhonda Avis, 27, and Michelle Strathern, 26, were believed to have been slain, while Ms Avid’s husband survived.
Among the four Britons killed include Mark Lindgren, who was 23 and a new graduate of Nottingham University, and Steven Roberts, 27, from Edinburgh.
Joanne Cotton, 28, and Martin Friend, 24, were the other two British tourists killed.
Survivors of the brazen attack said the execution-style killings came after some of the women in the group were raped, The New York Times reported.
The Australian Home Affairs Department refuses to comment on the matter, but according to Politico, the men were relocated thanks to the undisclosed deal with Australia.
In November, the two men moved to Australia with no public announcement.
The controversial ‘refugee swap’ deal was made in 2016, and in November the men dropped a legal challenge and promised never to re-enter the US.
The US agreed to accept up to 1250 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru who passed detailed security vetting, but weren’t going to be allowed into Australia.
While the deal was accepted by Mr Turnbull and President Obama, current US President Donald Trump was angered by the deal – as he doesn’t believe it’s in the country’s interest.
Australia also agreed to re-settle people the Obama Administration wanted to get out of the US in what Politico described as a ‘secret arrangement’.
Despite taking two men, it was reported that Australia refused to take the third alleged killer, Francois Karake, as he was involved in a fight with a US jail guard in 2015.
The report said it was unclear whether accepting the Rwandan men was a precondition of the deal with the US, but may have been a ‘reciprocal gesture that could nudge the swap deal along’.
President Trump expressing his views on the deal during an intense phone call with Mr Turnbull in 2017.
Mr Turnbull outlined the deal to the US President, including the promise to accept people the US didn’t want.
Details of the ‘people swap’ remain classified, but according to a transcript of the call leaked to the Washington Post, Mr Turnbull promised to take more people.
‘We will take more. We will take anyone that you want us to take,’ he said.