Black and blue justice

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Published in the Australian Bulletin July 5, 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.

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Photographs smuggled out of the former Port Hedland detention centre show detainees with injuries they say they received after being 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 pho- tos 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 Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs has covered up the affair.

“I think my photos maybe can show peo- ple 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 substantiated the claims. The point all consistently make is that inno- cent bystanders to the violence were beaten and abused by WA police and Australasian Correctional Management detention centre staff during the mayhem.

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.

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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.

The Port Hedland detention centre, which was closed last year, erupted in violence in the weeks leading up to Christmas 2003. Detainees, angry at a decision by immi- gration 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.”

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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 fac- ing 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 assem- blies 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 inter- viewed for this story claim the conditions remained much the same.

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The 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 Commonwealth 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 Howard 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 partici- pants in the riots. Letters of “regret” were later sent to a number of detainees by the department over this matter.

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The inquiry recommended that the Aus- tralian 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, Immigra- tion Minister Amanda Vanstone, said: “The AFP found that there was insufficient evi- dence 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 inves- tigation 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 last- ing 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.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman, John McMillan, whose office is monitoring the implementation of the Hamburger recom- mendations, says he has received an update from the department of immigration, which he is “currently reviewing”.