- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2016

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) - The Australian government has quietly lifted the threat of jailing doctors who speak out against child abuse and neglect of asylum seekers in detention, doctors’ lawyers revealed on Thursday.

Doctors for Refugees, a volunteer organization, launched a High Court challenge in July to the constitutional validity of secrecy provisions within the Border Force Act. Doctors argue the provisions gagged them from speaking publicly about conditions in Australia-run immigration camps on remote islands.

The doctors’ legal team discovered in court documents this week that the government had exempted health professionals from the secrecy provisions shortly before lodging its legal defense, lawyer Meghan Fitzgerald said.

A government website shows the change took effect on Oct. 1, exempting a wide range of health professionals, including doctors, midwives, podiatrists and nutritionists.

“The government has been forced into a back down as a result of the advocacy of health professionals who owe a duty of care to … their patients and whose ethical duties are paramount,” Doctors for Refugees said in a statement.

Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

The Border Force Act, which became law last year, makes it a criminal offense punishable by two years in prison for a broadly defined “entrusted person” within the immigration regime to disclose “protected information.”

Fitzgerald said the doctors were continuing their case, adding teachers and social workers who work with asylum seekers should also not be gagged by the threat of prison.

A United Nations human rights investigator said this week that Australia’s government has become increasingly secretive through a range of new laws, including the gag on officials speaking out about conditions at Australia-run immigration camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea

Michel Forst, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, recommended that Australia review its secrecy laws, including the “stifling” Border Force Act, to remove provisions that contravene human rights principles.

Forst said he had been assured by government officials during his two-week visit to Australia that no one had yet been charged under the Border Protection Act.

“This may well be the case, but the Act’s existence and government actions aimed at censoring and intimidating advocates has had a chilling effect on the disclosure of information about violations in off-shore processing,” Forst wrote in his End of Mission Statement.

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