Former Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has apologised for the handling of the Queensland University of Technology case in which university students were taken to court under section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act over Facebook posts about Indigenous-only computer labs.

But Professor Triggs praised the Commission’s handling of the case as “excellent” despite admitting that one of the reasons the HRC never told the students accused of wrongdoing that they were being investigated for more than a year was because the commission didn’t have their contact details. She conceded this was an error but blamed QUT for the mistake.

In May 2013, Cindy Prior, an Indigenous woman and administrative officer at the campus, told several QUT students to leave an Indigenous-only lab. The next day, posts on Facebook said: “Just got kicked out of the unsigned Indigenous computer room. QUT stopping segregation with segregation????” and “I wonder where the white supremacist computer lab is???.”

It was only in 2015 that the students learnt of the legal action.

Ms Prior accused one student, Calum Thwaites, of writing “ITT niggers”, which Mr Thwaites said was written by someone using a fake profile under his name. Two more students paid $5000 to Ms Prior to prevent further court action but three students successfully fought Ms Prior’s attempts to sue them for $250,000 in the federal court.

Mr Thwaites confronted the professor live on ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night, saying the case and the delays in resolving the complaint nearly ruined his life.

“I can’t understand, Professor Triggs, how you think the commission acted excellently when seven students weren’t told about the complaint for 14 months, regardless of what the university may or may not have said, when it wasn’t their responsibility, statute or otherwise, to inform us.

“As a result of this, seven students almost had their lives ruined, Cindy Prior has a $120,000 cost order against her at the moment. It’s not good enough to say ‘we’ll do better next time’. This shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” he said.

“I wasn’t one of the students that went into the computer lab, I wasn’t even one of the students that posted on Facebook, someone used a fake Facebook account and if, 14 months prior to the conciliation conference, it had actually come to my attention then maybe evidence could have been put to Ms Prior well before we went to court saying ‘it wasn’t me’.”

He also said the students involved in the issue were not trying to make a political point by entering the Indigenous-only labs, but that the room was unsigned and they “were simply looking for computers”.

In an astonishing admission, Professor Triggs said one of the reasons the students weren’t informed was because the HRC didn’t have their contact details. But she said the faults involved with the case belonged to the university not the HRC. “There was an understanding that the students could be kept out of this, that was the error,” she said.

“My own view is that commission did an excellent job,” she said. “The reason for the delay was that there was a good faith insistence, in fact, by the university that they wanted to protect the privacy and the interests of the students and that was not done in good time and that was the error if you like, that was the mistake,” she said.

“It failed at that procedural level that ultimately the students were not advised in good time and for that I really am deeply sorry,” she said.

“But I believe that it happened for reasons of good faith on the part of all of the parties to the matter and it’s very well to look back expo facto and say, ‘well we shouldn’t have listened to the university’ but the problem was also that we didn’t have contact details,” she said.

Mr Thwaites told Professor Triggs that her excuse was not good enough.

“It’s not good enough to say that you didn’t have the contact details, you had contact details for five of the seven students and you could have asked the university for the other two,” he said.

“Well that was bracing,” Professor Triggs posted on Twitter after the program.

The QUT case was seized upon by advocates of free speech who unsuccessfully tried to have section 18c of the act repealed last year. It also fuelled political attacks against Professor Triggs, who has been the target of Coalition attacks over her interventions in debates on free speech and of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

Liberal senator Eric Abetz accused Professor Triggs of staying “silent” on the human rights violations that occurred in offshore detention when Labor was in power. Professor Triggs denied this.

A debate on asylum seekers was sparked on Q&A when Aziz Muhamat asked a question via video, saying he had been stuck on Manus for four years and was looking for resettlement in either New Zealand, Canada or the United States.

“How long will Australia keep us here in danger?” he said.

Labor senator Lisa Singh accused the government of wanting asylum seekers to die.

“Do they want people to die, do they want people to suffer because it looks like it,” she said.

Liberal Senator and former cabinet minister Eric Abetz said Senator Singh’s suggestion was “highly offensive”.

“That is highly offensive, no government seeks to have this situation but, Lisa, when we won in 2013, how many people were in offshore detention because of Labor? And how many people are in offshore detention today? Thousands less,” he said.

“This program is designed to break people,” said Professor Triggs.

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This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.