Several female parliamentarians and victims of sexual assault in New Zealand were told to leave a session for trying to hold the country's prime minister, John Key, to account for accusing his political opposition of supporting rapists. The inflammatory accusation was made during a spat in the legislature over the fate of detainees from the country who are imprisoned in Australia.
Key, the leader of the New Zealand National Party, delivered the remarks on Tuesday after Labor Party leader Andrew Little berated the prime minister for failing to stand up for a group of New Zealanders who are locked up in Australia's notorious Christmas Island detention center. They are awaiting deportation after having their visas canceled for committing a range of crimes.
Responding to opposition politicians who have called for the government to intervene, Key said, "These people, some of them are rapists, some of them are child molesters, and some of them are murderers — and these are the people that the Labor Party is saying are more important to support than New Zealanders who deserve protecting when they come back here."
"Well, you back the rapists," Key shouted at Little, "and I'll back New Zealand."
On Wednesday, Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei asked David Carter, the speaker of the house, to demand an apology from Key.
"As the victim of a sexual assault, I take personal offense at the prime minister's comments, and ask that you require him to withdraw and apologize," she said.
When Green MP Catherine Delahunty rose to speak on the condition that it was "a fresh point of order" — she also identified herself as a victim of sexual assault, adding, "I take personal offense and would like a personal explanation from the prime minister," at which point her microphone was cut off.
Other female MPs from Labor and the Green Party joined in the calls for Carter to censure the prime minister, with some speaking of their own experiences with sexual assaults. Carter responded by saying that he had not heard the comments clearly enough at the time, so he could not seek an apology. The speaker then complained that the women were "flouting the rules" of parliament.
"I now will require any member who takes a point of order along the same lines to immediately leave the chamber," he said, sparking a walkout of more than a dozen parliamentarians.
"We've walked out because every woman in this country needs to know that women parliamentarians will not put up with this," Delahunty told Radio New Zealand. "We will not stand by and allow this to be bandied around parliament — this kind of abuse of people and way of approaching rape is simply unacceptable, and the prime minister has to be held to account."
In September, Green Party MP Julie Anne Genter suggested that Carter's manner with female members of the chamber amounted to sexism.
"I feel, personally, he is more likely to cut me off or to respond negatively to my point of order, not even let me explain it," she said. "And I know that he treats some of my female colleagues in a similar way."
Key remained seated throughout the incident and has refused to apologize for his comments.
After the walkout, parliamentarians continued to discuss the issue of New Zealand detainees on Christmas Island, whose treatment opposition politicians have protested, noting that some detainees had only committed relatively minor crimes like shoplifting and driving offenses.
Key responded by sharing more serious offenses committed by other detainees to give a "flavor of the types of people" being held at the offshore detention site.
"Some of the offenses, I don't even think the House would like me to read out," he said, "but others include, for instance, indecent treatment or dealings with a child under 16, the murder of an individual, manslaughter of an individual, armed robbery with actual violence, aggregated assault with weapons...."
The detention center on Christmas Island has long been a source of contention over claims of abuse and poor conditions. The facility segregates detainees seeking political asylum, many of whom have fled war-torn regions in the Middle East and Asia, from foreigners facing deportation for a variety of crimes.
Some of the New Zealanders awaiting deportation have lived in Australia for decades, and the number of deportations have proven to be a sore spot in the relationship between the two countries.
On Monday, Australian opposition politicians demanded that the government disclose the extent of destruction caused by ongoing riots at the center following the death of an asylum seeker. Detainees involved in the riot tore down fences and started fires, forcing guards to abandon the facility and allowing access to vulnerable inmates by other detainees, according to reports.
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