Donna Nelson removed as Derbarl Yerrigan chair as uncertainty shrouds detainment in Japan

Uncertainty remains over the fate of a West Australian Aboriginal community leader detained in Japan, after the organisation she chaired removed her from the position.

Donna Nelson was the chair of the Aboriginal-run Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service and was the Greens candidate for Pearce in the 2022 federal election.

Little is known about her situation, but it’s understood the Ballardong Njaki-Njaki woman was detained by Japanese authorities while on a personal trip earlier this month.

Her family remains concerned, having not heard from her in weeks and being unable to contact her after she did not return when expected.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it had been “providing consular assistance to an Australian woman detained in Japan” but has not provided any other information.

Japanese law allows a person suspected of a crime to be detained for 23 days without charge, according to the website of the Australian Embassy in Tokyo.

Ms Nelson facing ‘personal challenges’

In a statement, Derbarl Yerrigan said Ms Nelson had been “relieved” from her position as the organisation’s chair, effective immediately.

Donna Nelson wears a solemn expression
Ms Nelson has been removed as chair of the Aboriginal-run Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service.(ABC News)

“With the situation facing Donna in Japan still unknown and the timing of her return to Australia uncertain, the board felt appointing a new chair was crucial to the smooth running of the organisation,” the statement read.

“Whilst we share the community’s concern over Donna’s detention in Japan and extend our thoughts to her and her family at this most worrying time, Derbarl must focus on delivering comprehensive primary healthcare services to Aboriginal families across Perth.

“Our hope is that Donna will now be afforded the space and compassion she needs to deal with the personal challenges she is facing.”

The ABC understands the decision stems from the need for either the organisation’s chair or deputy chair to be present at board meetings.

With Ms Nelson still in Japan, it would mean board meetings would be unable to be held if the deputy, and later acting chair, Dan McAullay, was unavailable.

To avoid that situation, Derbarl Yerrigan appointed Mr McAullay as its chair, with Sandra Eades now deputy chair.

Ms Nelson remains a member of the organisation’s board.

Door open to return as chair 

A spokesperson clarified the organisation requires both its chair and deputy chair to approve documentation including banking, funding agreements and contract variations.

“Without knowing the situation that is currently facing Donna or how long she will be away, it was decided appointing a new chairperson and deputy chairperson at this time was prudent as opposed to acting positions,” the spokesperson said.

“This decision does not preclude Donna Nelson from returning to the board as chair some time in the future.”

Detainment on Premier’s radar

Derbal Yerrigan’s decision follows discussions over her situation between WA Premier Mark McGowan and Australia’s ambassador to Japan in Tokyo yesterday.

A head and shoulders shot of Mark McGowan talking in front of microphones during a media conference.
Mark McGowan received assurances that Ms Nelson was receiving consular assistance.(ABC News: James Carmody)

Mr McGowan had been on a planned tour of north-east Asia, spruiking Western Australia’s capabilities across renewable energy, critical minerals and agriculture.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Mr McGowan said the pair had discussed “many economic and security related issues”, as well as Ms Nelson’s situation.

“The Premier also received assurances that in relation to Ms Nelson, all consular assistance that could be provided was being provided,” the spokesperson said.

“The embassy advises that Ms Nelson has access to legal representation.

“The Premier has been advised that consistent with all consular matters in Japan, these matters are best handled by the embassy.”

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