Australia in dilemma over deportation of Honeymoon Killer to the U.S.

 @ibtimes
on November 11 2010 7:00 PM
Australia's Attorney General Robert McClelland (far left) and his U.S. counterpart Eric Holder (c) are seen at a Quintet meeting composed of the Attorneys General from the U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K. at the U.S. Justice Dept., Wash.
Australia's Attorney General Robert McClelland (far left) and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (center) are seen at a Quintet meeting composed of the Attorneys General from the U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K. at the Justice Department in Washington, April 30, 2010 Reuters

Authorities in Australia, which is a staunch opponent of death penalty, are in a dilemma over whether they should deport Honeymoon Killer Gabe Watson, who completed serving his prison term in Australia on Wednesday, to Alabama, U.S., a pro-death penalty state that wants to try him again over his wife's death.

In 2003, newly-married Watson and his wife Tina had gone to Australia for their honeymoon. However, the trip ended in a tragedy as Tina drowned while on a scuba diving trip with her husband in the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2008, or nearly five years after Tina drowned, the Queensland coroner found that there was sufficient evidence to charge Watson with Tina's death. Australian authorities accused Watson of killing Tina by turning off her air supply and holding her underwater. The authorities suspect Watson wanted to get his hands on Tina's insurance money of which he was named as the sole beneficiary and the prosecutors charged him with murder.

Last year, Watson, who has remarried, agreed to return to Australia to be tried and pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 18 months in Queensland prison.

However, authorities in Watson's home state of Alabama and Tina's family feel Watson's punishment is too lenient and want to try him in the U.S. as they claim he had devised the plot to kill Tina in Alabama. Alabama Attorney General Troy King also said that Watson can be tried in the U.S. as there are no international standards on double jeopardy.

Watson was due to be deported to the U.S. upon his release on Wednesday as his visa has expired, but the Australian immigration department flew him to a detention centre in Melbourne instead because Australia wants an assurance from Washington that he will not face the death penalty in the U.S.. Australia is a staunch opponent of capital punishment and, under international law, it is not permitted to deport anyone who could face execution on return to their home country.

In this regard, Alabama authorities have already said that they want to charge Watson with murder, but that there was no death penalty sentence awaiting him.

However, Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is waiting for the U.S. Attorney General to make a similar assurance.

Our embassy in Washington is prosecuting the case on behalf of Australia, seeking an assurance that the death penalty would not apply to Mr. Watson should he be returned to the United States, Bowen said.

Till the assurance comes, Bowen said Watson will be held in the immigration detention center and he is entitled to make an application for visa.

However, in all likelihood that application will be rejected as, under Australia's Immigration Act, a person who has served more than 12 months in prison is deemed to fail a test of good character and is not entitled to visa of any sort.

Things became further complicated when Watson's lawyer, Adrian Braithwaite claims the Australian government is trying to wash its hands off the matter by encouraging Watson to sign a document that absolved Australian authorities of responsibility if he was executed in the U.S.

The document stated that Watson is aware that he may be charged with capital murder or other serious offences upon (his) return to the USA, and the implications of the possible court processes in the US have been explained to (him).

I am aware that these charges may result in my execution if I am convicted, it stated.

Braithwaite, who had stopped Watson from signing his death warrant, had slammed Australia's Attorney-General Robert McClelland for trying to absolve yourself and your department of blame, and 'backdoor' your local and international legal obligations, should he (Watson) in due course be tried and executed.

It would have been a document that the government could have held up in justification for the deportation and said 'he acknowledged execution was a possibility...he went voluntarily', Braithwaite wrote to McClelland.

Braithwaite also told McClelland that senior Australian immigration officer, Deirdre Russack, had told him not to rely on Troy's assurances because the agreement had been reached between the states of Alabama and Queensland only, rather than federal agencies. Russack allegedly told Braithwaite that King's undertaking was provisional and for that reason not binding. Moreover, according to Braithwaite, McClelland allegedly doubted himself whether any undertakings of King would be binding on his successor as Attorney General of Alabama.

Braithwaite said Watson is ready to answer the charges against him in Alabama but wants an iron-clad undertaking from the Australian government that Watson would not face any prospect of death penalty if he is deported to the U.S.

However, McClelland said the Australian government has never tried to absolve itself from being responsible for Watson's fate and is rather taking a very careful approach to ensure it is fulfilling its international obligations on human rights.

I have never adopted the position, nor has my department provided advice to the effect, that the assurances provided by the Alabama Attorney General to the Queensland Attorney-General are 'not safe', McClelland said in a statement.

McClelland said the assurances given by King to his Queensland counterpart was in context of Queensland providing evidence to Alabama, and distinct from assurances sought for immigration purposes.

The Australian government consults with foreign national governments in relation to any such assurances...(and) the government is taking active steps to ensure Mr. Watson does not face a real risk of the death penalty upon his return to the United States, he said.

Meanwhile, Braithwaite also wants the Australian government to grant Watson a temporary visa pending the government's decision to allow him to be deported back to America as any formal assurance from the U.S. Attorney General that Watson would not be executed in the U.S. could take weeks or months.

However, Bowen said he does not expect the federal government to take long in giving its assurance.

There's no indication the United States government is reluctant to give that undertaking, Bowen said.

But of course naturally they need to be able to process it through their channels and their normal way of doing things before they give us their undertaking, he added.

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