On December 4, 2003, anger arose at the Port Hedland detention centre. Of course it did: a busload of high school girls had arrived in town, all the way from Mandurah Catholic College - they had previously developed a correspondence relationship with the detainees - with their teacher. And the girls who had travelled almost 2000 kms, had come to visit the refugees in the detention centre.
Alas, they were refused a visit to the detention centre by the Department of Immigration and the detention centre operator ACM (Australasian Correctional Management).
And the authories told detainees that the girls could not visit because the refugees would rape them. Of course fury followed. But the beatings by CERT guards clad in full riot gear (the Darth Vader outfit) assisted by West Australian police was shocking.
This page brings together some material related to the incident. It was ALP backbencher Dr Carmen Lawrence who at the time forced the Commonwealth Ombudsman to investigate the incident, but at the moment we write this (July 2005), we think it's still turned out to be a cover-up.
The items on this page start with the excellent coverage in The Bulletin by Madeleine Byrne and Julie-Anne Davies. This article is followed by the witness report from Port Hedland that formed the basis of the article in The Bulletin. Additional items relate to the reaction to the article. We believe this story is not over, and it's likely there's more to come soon about the incident.
29 June 2005
These shocking photographs show injuries to Port Hedland immigration detainees, allegedly made by police and detention officers after the 2003 riot. Several high-level investigations have yet to apportion guilt.
BY JULIE-ANNE DAVIES AND MADELEINE BYRNE
Photographs smuggled out of the former Port Hedland detention centre show detainees with injuries they say they received when beaten by West Australian police and detention centre officers during the December 2003 protest.
The man who took the photographs has signed a statutory declaration which includes detailed claims about violence against detainees including one that police bashed a woman and her teenage sons. He says he took the photos on a contraband disposable camera, later burying the incriminating roll of film inside the detention centre. A sympathetic officer later agreed to post the film to friends. The decision now to come forward with the film, the man says, is because the federal Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs has covered up the affair.
"I think my photos maybe can show people that it is not always detainees who are wrong, that the police and officers came to the detention centre and bashed people and this is my proof," he says.
A number of former detainees interviewed for this story have supported the claims. The point all consistently make is that innocent bystanders to the violence were beaten and abused by WA police and Australasian Correctional Management detention centre staff during the mayhem.
The victims, including the man who took the photographs, cannot be identified because most are on temporary visas. They believe they risk expulsion from Australia by coming forward with the new evidence.
The federal government has consistently denied that excessive force was used against detainees during the riots but the pictures obtained by The Bulletin show injuries on the backs and legs of three men.
Professor David Wells from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine says two of the photographs reproduced here suggest the injuries were most probably caused by beatings inflicted with a baton or stick. "To produce injuries like that in a person who is otherwise healthy does require a significant amount of force," Wells says. Because of the injury pattern in the photos - their number, location and shape - it is highly improbable the injuries were self-inflicted, or due to a fall, he says.
The Port Hedland detention centre, which was closed last year, erupted in violence during the weeks leading up to Christmas 2003. Detainees, angry at a decision by immigration department officials to ban a visit by students from a secondary school near Perth, staged a protest. For at least two hours, staff and police, who had been called in to assist, battled with detainees who took to the roof of the centre and refused to come down. The officers were pelted with rocks and four were injured.
One of the men whose injuries are shown in the photographs, and who was known by detention centre staff to be seriously ill at the time of the riots, says he was beaten in his room by officers despite playing no part in the protest.
"My door was open and I was lying down because I was very sick and I couldn't sit. I told them, 'I need my tablets because I am very sick'. They told me, 'Shut up!' I said, 'Why are you talking like this?' ... My remote control was in my hand and they hit me with a baton."
Elisabeth Nydegger, a detention centre officer who was left to guard this man after his alleged beating, was deeply concerned about the lack of medical care he received afterwards. Nydegger says she is still affected by what she witnessed that night.
"He was very gravely ill, possibly stressed to the maximum because now I know that he was beaten; he was obviously in such distress and pain," she says. "Emotionally, it's still affecting me when I talk about it because there was no reason to let him suffer like that - there was no reason at all. It was total neglect. On top of inflicting injury, his after-care was total neglect."
Others claim they were beaten and humiliated inside Juliet block, the detention centre's isolation area. "They were saying, 'You are fucking Middle East. What are you [doing] in this country? You have to leave. You no rights in this country'," says one former detainee.
Another former detainee recalls: "We were complaining about the handcuffs because it was too tight and we asked an ACM officer to make it a bit looser, but he came and he made it tighter. He said the first person who did it didn't do a good job, didn't do it tight enough."
When ACM officers entered the cell, the detainees say they were forced to stand facing the wall, legs spread, with their arms behind their backs. Detainees claim that an ACM nurse visited them but none received appropriate medical care.
After a few days, one of the detainees asked for shampoo and said he needed to have a shower. "One of the officers," the man claims, "brought me stuff you wash the floor and the stuff you use for the toilet."
The 2002 Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report, "Visits to Immigration Detention Centres", condemned the use of Juliet block at Port Hedland. During the visit, the report notes, committee members found "shower assemblies incomplete or not working, toilet seats missing and, overall, conditions [were] totally unacceptable". ACM advised the committee that detainees were released for one hour every 24 hours.
Before the December 2003 riot, the block had been refurbished. But detainees interviewed for this story claim the conditions remained much the same.
Fallout from the riots was significant. The detainees claimed they had been sprayed with tear gas, kept in isolation, beaten and refused food and medical treatment.
The department vigorously denied the allegations in a statement issued four days after the riot. After intervention by the federal ombudsman, the immigration department ordered an investigation into the alleged brutality by the former head of Queensland Corrective Services, Keith Hamburger.
This was completed more than a year ago but the federal government has so far refused to release it. It is understood the inquiry found that force was used on some detainees by both detention centre staff and police. It also found that tear gas was used to disperse inmates but determined it was justified.
Hamburger concluded that some detainees were wrongly placed in isolation after being incorrectly identified as participants in the riots. Letters of "regret" were later sent to a number of detainees by the department over this matter.
The inquiry recommended that the Australian Federal Police, the Western Australia Police and the Western Australian Crime and Corruption Authority further investigate all evidence relating to the excessive use of force. All three bodies told The Bulletin they could not comment on the findings of their own investigations.
In a statement to The Bulletin, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said: "The AFP found that there was insufficient evidence to support charges and the Western Australian Police Service investigation failed to sustain any allegations of excessive force by any officer."
Vanstone said she was satisfied no excessive force was used against detainees following these investigations.
Under freedom of information laws, Labor MP Carmen Lawrence has obtained some extracts from the original Hamburger investigation into the riot. Hamburger praises the role of staff in quelling the disturbance, saying they acted "with great courage in what was clearly a frightening and dangerous situation".
"In spite of a violent disturbance lasting some two hours, damage to property was relatively limited and, while staff and detainees suffered injury, fortunately these appear not to be of a lasting serious nature," Hamburger says. He made 66 findings in relation to how the incident was handled and 37 recommendations for improvement. Crucially, none of the documents released by the immigration department covers the allegations about excessive violence by police and officers against detainees.
Ombudsman John McMillan, whose office is monitoring the implementation of the Hamburger recommendations, says he has received an update from the department of immigration, which he is "currently reviewing".
Port Hedand Detention Centre
"The journey of Juliet Block"
The following is my account of events that occurred on the 4th of December 2003. This account is true and correct to the best of my memory at Port Hedland IRPC. On Thursday the 4th of December in the afternoon a few of our visitors were refused by DIMIA to visit us and were told that they won't let them visit us because we asylum seekers are going to rape them if they visit us.
During our visit some of our visitors told us about the above matter in the visit yard. As usual, we are being treated as animals and we are always suffering tolerating this but this time we cannot tolerate this big insult, so we asked ACM (Australasian Correctional Management, the detention contractor at the time) to see DIMIA (Department of Immigration) manager in relation to above matter. We were refused twice to see DIMIA manager then we started protest from the visit yard. As we were about leaving, the visit yard for the protest two of the ACM guards grabbed a friend of mine and hurt him. He was badly injured. Any way, we got on the roof for the protest, after a while I spoke with a correspondent from the local newspaper. I told her the issue and said that we are going to be protesting until we got an answer that why they tell the public bad things about us.
As I finished my interview with the correspondent all the ACM staff came and warn us to get down or they will get us down by force. We were about four detainees on the roof, we refused to get down and told them that we are not going to get any trouble for them; all we were doing was a peaceful protest.
A couple of police officers came with the ACM staff and walked around the compound. After a while a few of the ACM officers grabbed a detainee and called the guards with helmets, pads, batons and shields on the spot. They started hitting detainees with the batons, in the meantime police were already told to come. Some of the detainees got angry at this behaviour and started throwing stuff on the guards; another detainee broke a light and grabbed the electrical wires from within the wall touching them together making a spark.
He told the guards to move back or he would kill himself but they did not listen to him. I and some other detainees begged to the guards & supervisor to move back and leave the compound but they refused and told me to move the detainees back from the roof including the one with electrical wires. At this time, I moved back to the roof and tell detainees to move back for the sake of the detainee threatening to kill himself, they moved to the other side of the roof.
A detainee was so badly traumatized from being beaten with the baton by guards that he was not moving, talking and opening his eyes. I was very worried for him, I asked another detainee to bring me the water and I splash the water on his face and give him some to drink. For about five minutes he laid with his head on my lap while I rubbed his chest until he got up and help him move back. While this was happening, I told the man with the wires to let them go and get up because he was not going to kill just himself but every one else as we were on the metal roof. He did not understand because he was in mental shock from seeing guards detainees so badly. We were still on the roof and the guards left.
Nearly 7:00pm about fifteen to eighteen guards again entered from the maintenance area of the compound with the same helmets, pads, shields and batons but this time they had tear gas and masks. They closed all the gates of the compound, so we could not leave. We got down from the roof and asked them why they entered in the compound with that scary stuff on, we could not hear them properly because of the mask, all we heard was to move back that they could beat us and handcuff us. We refused and told them to not hit any detainee or spray the tear gas on us. Unfortunately, there was no one to listen.
I asked for a person among them to talk to or negotiate with, no one responded. Other detainee asked the same question but they keep saying the same things. After a while I repeated the above question and suddenly they spray the tear gas instead responding, so every one was running away because of the tear gas, were coughing and washing there faces with a hose in the compound. My eyes were red, 1 started crying and yell very loudly, looked at the sky and asked is this justice? I was very regretful of being a human first and being an asylum then, I wished I was killed in the civil war back in my country, so I couldn't see this honor incident from which I got a mental problem. Anyway, at the same time police entered from the visit yard as we saw them before the guards came into compound on the second time.
The police also started hitting women, children, sick and weak people. As police came inside the compound, so every one got into their room through a cut fence on the same day and they were very scared. Within a few minutes they entered to the rooms with the ACM guards hitting and handcuffing the detainees, we were handcuffed very badly and tighter. We asked the handcuff to open a bit, so they started abusing us. I with another detainee was laid on the rubbish by the guards and then we were taken to the Juliet isolation block.
Now it is the turn of the grave socalled JULIET (the isolation Block, called a punishment compound by a Parliamentary Committee in its report of 2002) where we were taken to like dead bodies. At the same night when we brought to this grave, that was the worse time of my life. We all, about 20 to 30 detainees, were put in that grave - hit and abused by those guards. I was in a small room with another detainee where there was only one mattress with no blanket and pillow. The room was so hot, there was no air conditioning or fan. A couple of nurses came with the guards but instead nurse asked us where we were injured the guards were asking and saying that they were injured too. They did not give detainees the treatment for their injuries. The nurses left and did not give the detainees any medication. This was a kind of joke. We haven't got any food on the same night.
Next morning on the Friday 5 December in the breakfast they brought a little bit cornflakes with four teaspoons of milk. My roommate got badly hurt, was yelling and asking for some medication, he asked for a couple of panadol but the guard told him to drink water if not get better then sleep. At that time I realize that there are people in this country that can forget their manner for a few dollars and there are more racist then our country. My roommate and I slept on one mattress but unfortunately neither I could sleep nor him.
On the third night a detainee next door to me asked a guard for replacing his room because his room was so dirty and smelly, so as usually the guard give him the same response as mentioned above. We did not have the access to exercise as according to law we supposed to have the access to exercise for one hour every day, in four days and nights we were taken twice for the exercise for about fifteen and ten minutes. In addition the behaviour with us was worse then Al-Qaeda.
All those four days and nights that we spent were the worse days of my life I have ever seen. My roommate told me he is going back to his country as soon as he gets out of that grave. They brought us only enough food that we could be alive with and all the time only boiled food has given to us. On the fifth day (08/12/2003) Monday in the morning they told me that I am going to PERTH, as I heard this got a long breath and feel alive.
Another detainee from the next door also was select for the PERTH. We both were handcuffed once and then with the guards another pair of handcuffs, which were metal handcuffs.
By the time when we got at the airport in Port Hedland and Perth, it was very embarrassing in that circumstances that we were in, we looked like criminals with those dirty and smelly cloths.
There were five guards with us from Port Hedland. When we got in Perth detention center, so I once again took a long breath but in open and fresh air this time and are thankful to GOD.
What's not mentioned in The Bulletin article is that one of the victims of the beatings was more than gravely ill, he was recovering from life-saving brain surgery which he had been in need of for some months.
In spite of repeatedly complaining about serious symptoms which were obvious to all who observed him, it took weeks if not months to get to see a doctor, who immediately referred him to Perth for emergency brain surgery. He had a life threatening aneurysm or something similar which was threatening to pop at any moment.
This had been the cause a variety of symptoms of which he had been complaining of for a long time to both DIMIA and ACM. After the surgery and once back at Port Hedland he received inadequate rehabilitative care and was suffering from poor motor skills and impaired cognitive function.
This guy could hardly even walk, much less participate in any violence. The photos look like someone has just gone berserk on his back. It's clear that he must have had an extensive beating while laying completely helpless. There's now way he was capable of running away or to have been doing anything but laying passively and helplessly. Oh, and by the way, a blow to the head where there were still major blood vessels healing could easily have been fatal.
The author was one of those who got a 'letter of regret' from DIMIA, admitting that he had been wrongly identified after the fact, by ACM, as having been someone who had committed offenses. Basically after the riot, ACM went through the place with the Police who arrested anyone that ACM pointed out. No other evidence required! A pity the police have never been so keen to pursue ACM, GSL or DIMIA people for the crimes that they commit in detention centers.
June 29, 2005 - 2:49PM
An alleged cover-up of abuse at the former Port Hedland detention centre shows the Commonwealth Ombudsman lacks the power and independence to conduct proper investigations, a refugee lobby group says.
Former detainees at the now closed Port Hedland detention centre have released photographs they say prove they were beaten by West Australian police and Australasian Correctional Management guards in a December 2003 riot.
The unnamed man who took photographs showing bruising on detainees' backs, shoulders and legs, also signed a statutory declaration outlining the alleged violence.
He said he came forward because the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) had covered up the matter.
DIMIA vigorously denied allegations of violence at the time and the Commonwealth Ombudsman facilitated an investigation into the incident.
It was completed in May last year and although it has not been made public by DIMIA, it is understood it recommended investigations by the Australian Federal Police, the Western Australia Police and the Western Australian Crime and Corruption Commission.
"The revelations ... about severe injuries to inmates in the former Port Hedland detention centre during an incident in 2003 show that the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman cannot be trusted," Jack Smit, spokesman for the refugee lobby group Project SafeCom, said.
Smit said the Ombudsman's office "is filled with bureaucrats who lack the power and independence of, and distance from, the Department of Immigration."
The Commonwealth Ombudsman's office has said it believes agencies should be first to investigate complaints against them, and as such, it had referred a number of complaints it received about the Port Hedland riot back to DIMIA.
"The Commonwealth Ombudsman and his staff have not been involved in any cover up in relation to the Port Hedland investigation or any other investigation," a spokeswoman for the ombudsman said.
She said the Department of Immigration had commissioned an independent investigator to look at the incident at Port Hedland.
"The Ombudsman's office was involved in developing the terms of reference for the inquiry and defining the issues to be addressed during the investigation."
The ombudsman was satisfied with the "independent and rigorous" process and its outcomes, the spokeswoman said.
But Mr Smit said the detainee's claims showed DIMIA had created a cover-up, and it raised doubts about Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone and Prime Minister John Howard's openness and accountability in regard to refugee treatment.
"The whole of the DIMIA, including the minister of immigration, the prime minister, and in the case of the Port Hedland beatings, the West Australian state police ... are implicated in this scandal and the cover-up," he said.
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone told The Bulletin she was satisfied no excessive force was used against detainees during the riot.
Further comment was being sought from WA police and DIMIA.
© 2005 AAP