A stand-off, and an appeal to public opinion

THREE of them arrived in pyjamas, one so disoriented and weak that he had to be assisted in and out of the courtroom. Another arrived on crutches, claiming his injured knee and ribs were the result of heavy-handedness by security guards at the tent city that is Nauru's resurrected asylum seeker processing centre.

But it was the absence of three of the 15 asylum seekers who faced the quaint but very serious charge of ''rioters injuring building'' from a disturbance in September that immediately caught the eye of resident magistrate Peter Law.

Two had departed Nauru, he was told, which was confirmation that two Iranians had surprisingly opted to return to their homeland. Their charges were withdrawn. The third absentee was excused because he is in the island's hospital, receiving treatment for the consequences of a prolonged hunger strike.

It was supposed to be a brief court appearance, but it became a stand-off and an opportunity for the accused to appeal to, if not a higher court, a more representative one: the court of Australian public opinion. Their immediate grievance was that they were to be represented by the island's public defender, a man they had never met.

So, while negotiations about who would represent them were carried out in the front of the bus that ferried them from the camp, one tossed a note to your correspondent through an open window. ''We are refugees. We are not criminals,'' it said.

A bigger demonstration followed, as others in the bus produced banners that had been concealed from security guards. ''FREEDOM,'' said one. Another repeated the message in the hand-written note.

How representative their despair is of the total, all-male population of the camp may become clearer today, when a delegation from Amnesty International will tour the facility and interview its inmates.

Two hours after the stand-off began, it ended when the accused agreed to be represented by Pres-nines Ekwona, a local lawyer who had been asked by the Refugee Action Coalition to monitor proceedings. He made it clear that he would not be able to represent all of the men in the trials, where the punishment will be two to seven years in prison if they are found guilty of causing $24,000 damage to property.

His modest aim had been to ensure they received a ''fair go'', he later explained. ''Beyond that, it remains to be seen who will take up their case,'' he said after proceedings were adjourned.

Mr Law, the magistrate, 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.

Outside the court, an Immigration Department spokesman said the claim that the injured man's injuries were caused by security were strenuously denied. It was up to the accused to make their own arrangements for legal representation, he said, adding that it was not the department's practice to fund lawyers for those charged with ''this type of offences''.

This story A stand-off, and an appeal to public opinion first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.