Diplomatic Briefing

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Archive for Australia/Oceania

Newsline: Iraq nurse raised weapons-related concerns with Australian ambassador

A former nurse at the Australian Embassy in Iraq told the ambassador about careless weapons handling and alcohol abuse by security contractors before a bodyguard’s death, an inquest has heard. The only witness to the death was a security contractor, Sun McKay, who allegedly regularly drank a cocktail of vodka, Redbull, cough mixture and Valium while playing with weapons. The man who died, Christopher Betts, 34, was also a private security contractor with the United Resources Group at the Baghdad embassy when he shot himself in the head on May 12, 2016, the Brisbane Coroners Court was told. Australian Federal Police found his gunshot wound was self-inflicted but could not determine if it was misadventure or suicide. He died about 2.30am after a night of drinking in the embassy living quarters with Mr McKay. Former URG nurse and ex-NSW police officer Tanya Ferrai told the inquest she became so concerned about URG’s poor management and culture she raised it with the company’s chief executive and eventually the ambassador. (https://7news.com.au/news/crime/embassy-shooting-witness-changed-his-story-c-544138) She alleged medical and security records were altered or deleted, mental health screening was inadequate, and contractors were using drugs and alcohol, which was forbidden.

Newsline: Australian ambassador rejects description of diplomat’s role in Russia probe

Australia’s ambassador to the U.S. confirmed to Sen. Lindsey Graham that the Australian government is assisting Attorney General William Barr’s investigation of foreign interference in the 2016 election — but disputed the lawmaker’s reference to an Australian diplomat involved in the Russia probe’s origins. Graham on Wednesday had asked the prime ministers of Australia, Italy and Britain to continue to aid Barr in his inquiry, which critics say represents another effort by President Donald Trump to discredit the work of former special counsel Robert Mueller. Graham added that those efforts by American officials included “accepting information from an Australian diplomat who was … directed to contact [Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George] Papadopoulos and relay information obtained from Papadopoulos regarding the campaign to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” It has been reported that Papadopoulos had revealed to an Australian diplomat, believed to be Alexander Downer, details of his April 2016 conversations with Josef Mifsud, a London-based professor with ties to the Kremlin. Mifsud allegedly told Papadopoulos that Moscow had “thousands of emails” damaging to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In a letter responding to Graham dated Wednesday, Ambassador Joe Hockey wrote that the Australian government “is cooperating” with Barr’s inquiry and has “been public about our willingness to cooperate.” (https://www.politico.com/news/2019/10/03/australian-ambassador-russia-probe-lindsey-graham-023594) Hockey added: “In your letter you made mention of the role of an Australian diplomat. We reject your characterisation of his role.”

Newsline: Foreign embassies flout Canberra parking laws

Foreign diplomats in Canberra owe almost $60,000 in unpaid parking fines, some dating back more than 16 years. From parking in spots reserved for medical staff to not paying for parking in ticketed areas, FOI documents released by the ACT Government show foreign embassies have amassed 423 unpaid parking fines. Envoys from Russia and Slovakia appear to be the most likely to ignore parking laws: the two countries were responsible for half of all unpaid infringements. Russian embassy staff alone had failed to pay 175 fines, worth more than $23,000. (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-09-23/diplomatic-drivers-ignore-parking-laws/11537306) The embassy has 15 posted officials in Canberra, though their families and staff can also drive their diplomatic vehicles, as is the case with all embassies. Under the Vienna convention, emissaries posted to other countries are immune from prosecution by local authorities. However, the Australian Government asks foreign officials to comply with Australian laws and to follow police directions. Most embassies do, telling their staff to obey traffic rules and pay the penalties if they breach them.

Newsline: China, Solomon Islands establish diplomatic relations

China and the Solomon Islands have established diplomatic relations days after the Pacific island nation severed ties with Taiwan. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the Solomon Islands’ Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeremiah Manele signed an agreement to form ties at a government guest house in the Chinese capital, Beijing, on Saturday. “We look forward to the quick development of bilateral relations between China and the Solomons,” said Wang, pledging to support the country in moving “forward in the development path it has chosen for itself”. (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/china-solomon-islands-establish-diplomatic-relations-190921111348417.html) Manele said the Solomon Islands’ decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China – its largest trading partner – was based on “national needs”. “The development challenges for our country are huge. We need a broader partnership with countries that also includes China,” he said. The move marks a setback for Taiwan, which has been a de facto sovereign nation since the end of a civil war in 1949. China still views the island as its territory and has promised to seize it – by force if necessary.

Newsline: Australia warns China’s diplomats

Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, has issued a warning to foreign diplomatic representatives residing in Australia that the nation will not tolerate interference in the exercise of free speech. It came after a Chinese diplomat backed the “patriotic behaviour” of Chinese students who clashed with pro-Hong Kong protesters at the University of Queensland this week. Payne said the right to free speech and to peaceful and lawful protest was protected in Australia, even on contentious and sensitive issues. “The Australian government expects all foreign diplomatic representatives to respect these rights,” she said. “The government would be particularly concerned if any foreign diplomatic mission were to act in ways that could undermine such rights, including by encouraging disruptive or potentially violent behaviour.” (https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jul/27/australia-warns-diplomats-after-china-praises-patriotic-clashes-with-pro-hong-kong-protesters) News Corp reported the Chinese consul-general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, praised Chinese students for confronting what he said were “anti-China separatist” protesters with “ulterior motives’. “The consulate general attaches great importance to the safety of Chinese students, affirms the spontaneous patriotic behaviour of Chinese students, resolutely opposes the words and deeds of any separatist countries, and opposes the use of these events to create the opposition between Chinese and Hong Kong students and incite anti-China sentiment,” he said. Hundreds of pro-Hong Kong students gathered at the university on Wednesday, backing demonstrations in the former British territory against Beijing’s influence before it was gatecrashed by pro-Chinese students. Punches were exchanged between the two groups.

Newsline: Death in Australia’s embassy in Iraq investigated

Queensland coroner Terry Ryan is to hold a full inquest into the death of Christopher Betts, 34, the elite former soldier shot dead in mysterious circumstances in Australia’s embassy in Iraq more than three years ago. At a pre-inquest conference held in the presence of Betts’s ­family in Brisbane Magistrate’s Court this week, the coroner also announced he will examine whether Betts’s employer, private security firm Unity Resources Group, had appropriate safety and weapons-handling procedures in place in Baghdad and whether the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had adequate oversight of the company. (https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/at-last-inquest-into-embassy-death/news-story/d0acf1af4038ebe89ee7629355b6313c) More than a dozen witnesses, including those flown in from overseas, will be called to give ­evidence and the Betts family lawyer, Patrick McCafferty QC, has been granted leave to question them on the stand. hris Betts had been working as a highly trained private security guard in the Baghdad embassy when he died in the early hours of May 12, 2016, after a gun was fired in a room in the compound. Reports from work colleagues in the hours that followed suggested that Betts and his colleague, a former commando, Sun Mackay, had been drinking and playing video games about 2.30am when the firearm discharged and killed Betts. Mackay has not spoken publicly about what occurred and it is not known what he told investigators. Some colleagues who spoke to The Australian at the time reported he had described it as a terrible ­accident while others said he claimed Betts had committed ­suicide. Betts’s parents, Rae and Colin, did not just lose their only son that night: Chris’s young wife, Angela, devastated by her grief, took her own life just a few weeks later.

Newsline: Venezuela called to appear in Canberra court over missed embassy rent payments

The Republic of Venezuela has been taken to court by a Canberra family who alleges the country owes them thousands in unpaid rent money. The Rosa family claimed the South American nation had missed more than $50,000 in rent payments for two properties in O’Malley it had previously used as an embassy. (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-28/venezuela-called-to-appear-in-canberra-court-over-missed-rent/11151010) In documents seeking a hearing in the ACT Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the family claimed that from 2017 the republic began to fall behind in payments, and eventually vacated under contentious circumstances. In October of that year, the embassy made headlines when its landlord blockaded the entrance using a construction vehicle. Things boiled over when top Venezuelan skier Cesar Augusto Baena Sierraalta struck the landlord, claiming the man had showed disrespect for his country. Mr Sierraalta pleaded guilty and was released on a good behaviour order, with no conviction recorded.