The case fell apart in 2007 when a US judge ruled the men’s murder confessions – given to Rwandan and American interrogators – were obtained by coercion and legally inadmissable.
The men remained in administrative detention in the US while they fought extradition to Rwanda where they feared retribution, but unable to find a third country for resettlement.
The pair – Gregoire Nyaminani and Leonidas Bimenyimana – were eventually brought to Australia in November. Politico reported the decision may have formed part of the murky “people swap” deal negotiated by Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama in 2016 and later reluctantly agreed to by Donald Trump.
In their notoriously tense phone call in January 2017, Mr Turnbull begged Mr Trump to honour the deal for the US to resettle 1250 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru.
In a telling exchange, Mr Turnbull told Mr Trump: “We are taking people from the previous administration that they were very keen on getting out of the United States. We will take more. We will take anyone that you want us to take.”
The Australian government has always maintained this arrangement did not constitute a “people swap”, but the details were opaque. The agreement also committed Australia to resettling a number of Central American refugees from a US-backed centre in Costa Rica.
Senior Australian government sources confirmed the men were accepted by Australia after security agencies investigated the claims against them and concluded they were innocent. Evidence against the pair was believed to be circumstantial and the better explanation was that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Asked about the issue at the National Press Club, Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to comment on specifics but said: “Every single person that comes to Australia under any such arrangements is the subject of both character and security assessments by Australian security agencies and our immigration authorities.”
A third Rwandan man jailed in the US, Francois Karake, told Politico he met an Australian embassy official. But he was never accepted for resettlement, possibly because of his violent altercation with a US jail guard in 2015.
The Department of Home Affairs did not answer questions about the men’s location or visa status, and referred The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to Mr Morrison’s comments. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was also approached for comment.
Court documents established that ALIR soldiers took 17 hostages during the attack in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest in Uganda in 1999. Eight were killed, including two women from New Zealand and two Americans. The US had also designated the Hutu rebel group ALIR as a terrorist organisation.
John Coyne, the head of border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, noted the three men “were not found guilty of anything”. Human rights groups were also highly critical of the men’s long period of detention in the US after charges were dropped.
Dr Coyne said the US had a more risk averse security assessment process. But Australia’s system would benefit from greater transparency, he said, and the decision to accept the men “looks bad because it’s opaque”.
The men were brought to Australia at the same time as Mr Morrison aggressively attacked Labor over its support for the “medical transfers” law, which made it easier for refugees in Nauru or Papua New Guinea to be evacuated to Australia for treatment.
Mr Morrison and other Coalition figures warned the laws would enable accused rapists and murderers to come to Australia – even though the law had safeguards to prevent convicted criminals from being transferred.
They argued the laws undermined Australia’s national security because they did not give the immigration minister the power to reject people who had merely been accused of crimes.
More than 500 refugees have now been resettled in the US from PNG and Nauru, though it stands well short of the 1250 maximum the US had agreed to take. During their awkward phone call, Mr Turnbull had to dissuade Mr Trump from abandoning what the President labelled a “dumb deal” done by his predecessor.
The Politico report speculated the decision to accept the two Rwandan men may have not explicitly formed part of the deal, but could have been a “reciprocal gesture [to] nudge the swap deal along”.
Mr Turnbull’s spokesman was contacted for comment but the former prime minister was in transit on Thursday.
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.