Ex-Nauru president Rene Harris dies
Former Nauru president Rene Harris, who helped broker the controversial "Pacific Solution" to deal with asylum seekers bound for Australia, has died aged 61, the Nauru government said on Sunday.
Harris, the longest-serving politician on the tiny Pacific island nation of just 13,000 people, suffered a heart attack on Friday afternoon and passed away Saturday morning.
Within hours of his death, a state funeral was held for Harris attended by current President Marcus Stephen, cabinet members and MPs along with a number of former presidents and members of parliament.
Foreign Minister Kieren Keke said although Harris was always unorthodox and controversial, there was no denying that Nauru had lost one of its most memorable orators and toughest politicians.
In 2001, he joined with then Australian prime minister John Howard in initiating the so-called Pacific Solution which saw asylum seekers diverted to Nauru where they were held in detention centres for processing rather than being allowed into Australia where they were heading.
A total of 1,637 people, many fleeing Iraq and Afghanistan, were detained on Nauru or the Papua New Guinea island of Manus under the policy which was eventually scrapped in February this year.
About 70 percent were ultimately resettled in Australia or other countries, often after years in detention. The policy drew widespread criticism from human rights groups and refugee advocates.
Harris had served continuously in the 18-member Nauru parliament for 31 years, until he lost his seat in general elections last April.
His political career included four years as president at various times between 1999 and 2004.
Harris' wife died just over one month ago after a battle with cancer.
He is survived by his four daughters, one son and 10 grandchildren.