- In other news – Major upgrades to security at the Manus Island detention centre, including the installation of CCTV cameras and better fencing, had been recommended by the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders three months before the deadly riots in February, but were not acted on, new documents show.
“It is clear the Minister failed to act.”
By Michael Gordan
Originally published in The Age
Lawyers acting for asylum seekers who say they witnessed the killing of Reza Barati at the Manus Island detention centre in February have launched a High Court action to have them placed in protective custody in Australia.
The asylum seekers, who are still to be interviewed by Papua New Guinea police investigating Mr Barati’s death, say they have received death threats and fear for their safety while they remain in the centre.
A writ issued on Wednesday also accuses the Australian and PNG governments of committing crimes against humanity by exposing asylum seekers to arbitrary and indefinite detention in “tortuous, inhuman and degrading conditions”.
The action is aimed at securing the return of the asylum seekers to Australia for processing and preventing any more being sent to PNG. It will be vigorously defended by the Abbott government.
The legal action coincides with renewed tensions at the facility, amid speculation that several asylum seekers will be told their claims for refugee status have been rejected.
One Iranian was told on Wednesday that he had received a “positive initial assessment” and “may be eligible to participate in more activities in the PNG community”. But a letter to the asylum seeker said this did not mean he was a refugee, and a final decision would be made by PNG immigration minister, Rimbink Pato.
Mr Barati was killed and more than 60 others were injured when PNG nationals entered the centre on the night of February 17 armed with machetes, guns and other weapons.
Lawyers acting on behalf of 354 of around 1300 asylum seekers being held in the Manus Island facility have also called for a royal commission-style inquiry into arrangements, events and conditions at the centre.
They are seeking an urgent hearing on the application for the asylum seekers to be given witness protection. One of the witnesses, who says he can identify most of those involved in Mr Barati’s death, has already told a PNG court that he fears for his life if he reveals what he saw on February 17. He says PNG guards, PNG locals and expatriate Australians were involved in the death.
Lead counsel Jay Williams took detailed statements from the witnesses before being deported from PNG last month, but the asylum seekers have refused to speak to police investigating Mr Barati’s death until their safety can be guaranteed.
Instructing solicitor Ruth Hudson, who is senior associate with the Sydney law firm Stacks Goudkamp, said the action by the PNG government to shut down a human rights inquiry initiated by PNG judge Justice Cannings underscored the case for an inquiry to be established in Australia. She proposed that former High Court judge Michael Kirby head the inquiry.
Among the claims made in the writ filed on Wednesday are that the asylum seekers were forcibly deported from Australia in violation of international law and have been detained without access to legal representation, judicial review or a fair hearing.
They say they have been exposed to murder, attempted murder, threats of cannibalism, grievous bodily harm and other “gross humanitarian violations”. A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said it would not be appropriate to comment on matters before the courts.