Where once he could wave to his family through a wire fence, he has been told by guards – without explanation – that the behaviour was a security risk and prohibited.
Now the only time he has with his wife and six children are the crowded hours spent in the overfull and noisy visitors’ area of Villawood detention centre in Sydney; a cavernous and impersonal room where guards wearing black vests and body cameras with listening devices quietly loiter to electronically eavesdrop on conversations. His children must wear brightly coloured wristbands to see him. The wristbands mean they can leave. His wrists are bare.
Abdellatif has watched hundreds of asylum seekers pass through and out of detention: granted bridging visas, protection visas, some deported. He has seen people set themselves on fire in detention, hang themselves and stab each other. Sniffer dogs invade rooms without notice seeking out drugs.
Abdellatif doesn’t count the days – 1,643 – he has been in held immigration detention. He knows broadly it is four-and-a-half years and he knows he remains no closer to a resolution of his case than the day he arrived in Australia.
In that time, he has seen four Australian prime ministers come and go. He follows politics closely and jokes darkly he may see many more. He has not been charged, nor accused of any crime in Australia.
His detention has been condemned by the UN human rights council as illegal, a “clearly disproportionate… deprivation of liberty” from which he should be released and for which he should be compensated; excoriated by the Australian Human Rights Commission as “arbitrary … and unjustified”; and criticised by the Australian government’s own inspector general of intelligence and security for its “lack of coordination and … urgency”
Four times the department has recommended to successive ministers that he be allowed apply for a protection visa. He remains in detention.
Now, new documents obtained under freedom of information legislation reveal the government has known for nearly 18 months that the evidence used to convict Abdellatif in absentia in a mass show trial in Egypt in 1999 – the basis for his detention in Australia – was obtained “under severe torture” and is discredited.
A briefing paper read and signed by the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, in April 2015, two months after a Guardian story, states documents in possession of the department “raise concerns about the legitimacy of the trial”.
“Translations of supreme military court documents and signed statements from witnesses indicate that the evidence used against Mr Abdellatif in the Egyptian trial was obtained under torture.”
But the same document also shows the immigration department seeking to assure the immigration minister that Abdellatif can still be kept in detention without charge or trial, regardless of the legitimacy of his claim for protection.
Department officials recommended that Abdellatif be allowed to apply for a visa, so that it could then be denied to him and the process used to force him out of Australia.
“If Mr Abdellatif was permitted to lodge a valid TPV [temporary protection visa] application, it would be refused as he would not meet the criterion in the new subsection 36(1B) of the [migration] act (which refuses a visa to anyone judged by Asio to be directly or indirectly a risk to security).”
Officials recommended that Abdellatif be allowed to apply for a visa, so that it could then be denied to him
An asylum seeker cannot legally be removed from Australia before their claim for protection is assessed. Therefore, bureaucrats argue to the minister in the briefing, allowing Abdellatif to apply for a visa, only to then reject it, “provides the strongest basis for effecting removal as it reduces the risk of successful litigation and, therefore, is the proposed mechanism to assess Mr Abdellatif’s claims”.
The briefing contemplates approaching Egypt – the only country of which Abdellatif is a citizen or has a right to enter but also the country from which he seeks protection from persecution – to ask that country to request his extradition.
Egypt has made no effort to reclaim its citizen and the briefing notes “securing adequate diplomatic assurances cannot be guaranteed … until thorough consideration has been given to Mr Abdellatif’s security concerns and his specific claims including the risk of harm on return to Egypt”.
On 19 May 2015, the immigration minister granted the Abdellatif family leave to apply for temporary protection visas in Australia.
Abdellatif undertook 22 hours of interviews over four days with department officials in February and March 2016 but nearly a year later is no closer to finding out the outcome of his application.
Abdellatif has no recourse to any appeal while he is detained and while his case remains before the department. It has barely progressed, save for the growing mountain of paperwork that only serves to confirm the Kafka-esque stalemate he is in.
A spokesman for Asio – the agency that gave Abdellatif an “adverse security assessment” on the basis of the flawed Egyptian trial – told the Guardian: “Consistent with long standing practice, Asio does not comment on individuals.”
A spokeswoman said the department “does not comment on individual cases”.
Exile and detention
Abdellatif fled Egypt in 1992, having been tortured under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. In that year, he was arrested from a mosque by the state security investigations service as part of a crackdown on Islamic political opposition to Mubarak’s rule. Since fleeing his homeland, he has remained in exile from his country, living as a refugee in Albania, the UK, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia and – finally – Australia. All of his six children were born during that exile.
Abdellatif and his family arrived in Australia by boat in May 2012. The Australian government assessed his claim for protection and found that he and his family had a prima facie claim to refugee status.
The Egyptian supreme military court had sentenced him to 15 years in prison, for “membership of a terrorist group” and “providing forged travel documents”, relying on evidence obtained under “severe torture” including electric shocks.
But, beyond the arcane legal machinations, Abdellatif’s case had the misfortune to become a political firestorm at the height of 2013 pre-election debate over boat arrivals. The then opposition leader and later prime minister, Tony Abbott, labelled Abdellatif a “convicted jihadist” and a “pool-fence terrorist”, in reference to the low-security perimeter at the Inverbrackie detention centre in South Australia. George Brandis, now the attorney general but then the shadow attorney general, said he was “plainly a convicted terrorist”.
The Abdellatifs were moved to Villawood. There, Sayed Abdellatif remains. His case has hardly progressed and the systemic flaws in his detention have never been addressed by the department.
In a narrow booth in the visitors’ area of the detention centre, Abdellatif’s two eldest daughters fuss about him, spreading out cake and ma’amoul – a Middle Eastern date pastry – as he sips distractedly at a weak, milky tea served in a polystyrene cup.
His eldest son, now 13, bears a striking resemblance to his father. A child when he came to Australia, he is a young man now, sporting a stubble on his chin and quiet, defiant eyes. A younger brother, now six, can barely remember what it is like to live with his father.
The children are “doing very well, I am very proud”, Abdellatif says of their lives on the outside. But they carry the burden of their father’s incarceration too. School graduations, speech nights, Abdellatif has applied – and been rejected – to attend them all.
A life of exile – all of his children know only displacement – has bound the Abdellatif family tightly together: throughout their incarceration in Australia, members of the Abdellatif family have resolutely insisted they not be forcibly separated. But a bureaucratic sleight of hand saw the family’s situation transmogrify yet again.
Earlier this year, Villawood detention centre’s family compound – where Abdellatif’s wife and six children were housed – was overnight redefined as “community detention housing”.
While the security cameras that had watched them were disabled, and gates unlocked, the Abdellatif family remained in the same house but the change to their detention regime allowed the immigration minister to declare there were no longer any children in immigration detention in Australia.
Now ostensibly free, the change has, perversely, forced Abdellatif’s family further from him. The 10-minute internal route within Villawood that joined the family and the high-security compound is now sealed, forcing the family to thread their way through Villawood’s suburban streets on foot to see their husband and father, now a few hundred metres but an hour’s walk away.
Even in their brief moments of communion, there is a weariness about the Abdellatif family, a resignation that, even as they try to enjoy the few hours they have together as a family, they can never wholly forget their cloistered, confining surrounds.
Abdellatif’s is life spent in limbo, at the mercy of a bureaucratic caprice he can neither question nor predict. Still, after four-and-a-half years, he holds hope.
“I came to Australia not to fight with Australia but seeking protection,” he says. “I am a friend, not an animal.”
The indefinite nature of his detention wears on him, he explains, grinding down his spirit and triggering crushing bouts of depression that he must fight to pull himself from. Abdellatif’s treating psychologist and psychiatrist have both recommended to the government he be reunited with his family in the community “given the significant impact separation from his family in a held detention environment is having on his mental health”.
“I’m wasting my life in this place,” he says of his incarceration. “If I was sentenced, if I made a mistake, I’d pay the price. But I have done nothing wrong, I have nothing to hide.
“Even in jail they have a time, they know how long … but this system is killing hope.”
Abdellatif spends most of his days alone, in his room, a tight, airless cell with a toilet, a single bed and a chest of drawers, and from which, if he stands on a stool, he can see the outside world through a high sealed window. But the view is only of the detention centre’s water tank and the steel fences that hold him in.
Abdellatif speaks haltingly these days. His English, once strong, is getting worse with the isolation of his existence.
Now, he can barely be heard above the din of the visitors’ room. He leans in to speak, first glancing over his shoulder to see who – the guards wearing cameras can appear at any time – might be listening.
Here, we are nowhere, he says. And there are no rules.
“We are out of Australia. We are out of the world.”