Death in the gulag

Lifting the veil of secrecy in Manus Island’s detention centre, photo by Thinkstock

Lifting the veil of secrecy in Manus Island’s detention centre, photo by Thinkstock

In summary: 
  • The death of a 23-year-old asylum seeker is lifting the veil of secrecy in Manus Island’s detention centre
  • PNG authorities have tried to restrict journalists from visiting the centre, or are allowing them in only under tight control
  • It's hoped a Senate inquiry will allow workers and witnesses to come forward about conditions in the centre without fear of reprisal

A Senate inquiry into the murder of Reza Barati in the Manus Island detention centre is a step in the right direction, says Director of UTS’s Australian Centre for Independent Journalism Tom Morton.

Tom Morton, photo by Joanne Saad Tom Morton, photo by Joanne Saad

Multiple blows to the head, probably with a heavy object, caused the death of Barati, the 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who died in the Manus Island detention centre on 17 February.

That was the conclusion of a preliminary medical report by Papua New Guinea (PNG) police, published by the PNG Post-Courier, and reported here in Australia by The Guardian’s Paul Farrell – a UTS journalism graduate. 

Manus Island provincial police commander Alex N'Drasal has told Fairfax Media he hopes to charge “three to four men” with Barati’s murder in the near future.

Barati was at the beginning of his life, not much older than many students at UTS. He was an architecture graduate and a Kurd – a national minority which has suffered prolonged and systematic discrimination in Iran.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has told the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann he is “hopeful and confident” parallel investigations by the PNG police, the coroner, and an ‘independent review’ commissioned by his department will determine how Barati died and who killed him.

Those two words – hopeful and confident – reveal just how far successive Australian governments have gone in allowing so-called ‘offshore processing centres’ to operate behind a veil of secrecy and outside the law.
Deaths in Australian immigration detention are nothing new. A Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report published in 2013 listed 11 deaths in the years 2010 to 2012 alone.

All these deaths occurred on the Australian mainland. All were the subject of coronial inquiries, and in some cases, police investigations. All were found to have been either suicides or the result of natural causes.

These figures in themselves are shocking enough. But they conceal a macabre truth. Some of the more detailed information we have about what goes on inside Australia’s immigration detention centres comes from sources such as coronial inquests. Put bluntly – it takes a death or a suicide to let in some light.

More than 10 years ago, as a reporter with ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing, I interviewed Inspector of Custodial Services in Western Australia Richard Harding about a riot in the now defunct Woomera detention centre. In 2001, Harding was asked by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to visit the Curtin Detention Centre and report on conditions there.

In the interview, he described the Curtin and Woomera detention centres as “worse than prisons”. If anyone was qualified to make that judgement, it was him: his day job was to conduct independent inspections of prisons in WA. 

In the interview, Harding went on to compare the detention centres to the gulags of the former Soviet Union.

Wasn’t that an extreme way to describe them? I asked him. Here’s what Harding replied: “It’s probably an extreme way to describe those that are in metropolitan areas, but Woomera and Curtin are in the middle of nowhere, with no normal social interaction. Obviously there’s not torture and starvation and so forth, but this is a regime… which has not been replicated since the Second World War, when we put so-called hostile foreign nationals in camps.”

Detention centres shared one critical feature with the gulags, according to Harding: the lack of any independent oversight or scrutiny.

More than a decade later, his comments still ring true. If Woomera and Curtin were gulags, then Manus Island is too; even more remote, even less likely to allow ‘normal social interaction’, and even less open to public scrutiny.

Both Labor and Coalition governments have tried to deflect or prevent that scrutiny by barring journalists from visiting them, or allowing them in only under tight control.

Now, as Fairfax journalist Rory Callinan wrote recently, “PNG authorities are learning from Australians how to restrict the press”. Callinan and a Fairfax photographer had their laptops and cameras seized when they were at the hospital morgue on Manus Island where Barati’s body was being held, and again the following day when accompanying Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell on a visit to the police station. In the latter instance, it was an Australian Immigration Department official who asked PNG police to intervene.

Barati’s death is different in one crucial respect from previous deaths in immigration detention. This is the first time anyone has been killed – apparently murdered – in an immigration detention centre operated by the Australian government. 

Last week, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young won support from Labor for a parliamentary inquiry into Barati’s death and the circumstances surrounding it. Hansen-Young hopes the inquiry will give witnesses – including workers at the centre – confidence to come forward without fear of reprisal. It’s a step in the right direction, but one the Minister himself should have taken.

Let’s be clear: Barati, like the other detainees on Manus Island, was under Australian legal jurisdiction. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison had the ultimate duty of care for his wellbeing.

Neither the Minister nor we, the Australian people, can simply outsource our legal responsibilities to another government or its police force. For the Minister to say simply that he is “hopeful and confident” the truth will emerge is to abdicate those responsibilities.

If Barati had been killed in an Australian prison, his death would have been the subject of an Australian police investigation, a coronial inquest, and – quite possibly – a separate judicial inquiry.

Australia already has high-level cooperation agreements with PNG’s police force. There is no reason, for example, why the Immigration Minister could not request that the AFP conduct their own investigation into Barati’s death; or that a senior Australian judge – not a former public servant appointed by the Minister – be empowered to carry out a truly independent inquiry.

A full, open and public investigation will not bring Barati back to life. It will do nothing to assuage the grief of his parents, his sister and his friends and relatives in Iran.

It would, however, give them some confidence that Australia is a country which respects the rule of law, and whose government is determined to find out how their son died.


Culture and Sport

Thanks for writing this Tom. It is tragic that this death has taken place and it is not possible to see it in any other way then the young man was murdered by those who in fact where meant to be looking after them. This is a Storify I put together about three months ago from twitter about some of the other things we have managed to do to these people #Notinmyname is growing and #Marchinmarch demonstrated just how many everyday Australians are not happy about what is happening.

Thanks Tom, for drawing attention to the vexed issue of press access to detention centres. The need to be able to report on what is occurring in remote on and off shore facilities is more important than ever. Authorities have to be held accountable not only for the vast sums of money being expended but also the deliberate damage being perpetrated on fellow, rights-holding human beings in our name. We are all co-responsible for the way in which we are governed and should have access to all the facts necessary to formulate informed opinions.

There are some very murky corners of our administration that need exposing to the bright lights of transparency.