asylum · asylum seekers · human rights · interview · investigation · Investigative

Australian government concedes evidence against asylum seeker was obtained by torture as featured in The Guardian

Sayed Abdellatif
 Exclusive: Sayed Abdellatif is still held in detention in Sydney even though immigration minister Peter Dutton was briefed 18 months ago that evidence used in Egypt to convict him was discredited

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.

The trial, criticised by rights groups at the time, was later found to have been fraudulent. A three-year Guardian investigation has shown multiple flaws in the case against him and Australia’s handling of that case.

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.”


ASIO · asylum · investigation · journalism · Sayed Abdellatif

For Sayed Abdellatif, the mental scars of detention add insult to injury- as featured in the Guardian

Front page of the Guardian Australia site.
Front page of the Guardian Australia site.

The sensation remains with him: the pain of the pliers biting into his skin, and the smell of his own flesh burning.

It is Egypt, 1991.

Sayed Abdellatif is in a building, somewhere – he does not know where – in Cairo, in the custody of the feared state security investigations service (SSIS), the principal security and intelligence agency of the dictator Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

A few hours earlier, the devout 19-year-old had been praying in a mosque when it was raided by members of the SSIS. Everyone inside was arrested, even the children.
Now, sitting in a cell with 15 or 20 other men, Abdellatif does not know why was he was arrested, with what – if anything – he will be charged, or when he might be released.

At regular intervals guards walk into the cell. They blindfold a prisoner, and lead him away.

Finally it is Abdellatif’s turn. Bound, and in the arms of guards, he is taken away to be tortured.

In an interview years later with Australian immigration authorities, Abdellatif is able to recall the methods of torture with chilling detail: “They would tie your hands behind your head and dangle you from a bar. They would use lit cigarettes against your body to put the cigarette out against your skin.”

Through the blindfold he could feel heated metal tools being used to burn his hands.

“This part of my thumb [there] was like a plier where they heat it up and pinch the skin, and they put cigarettes [sic] out on my legs.”

Each interrogation runs for several hours. The time between is spent in the holding cell waiting, wondering when your time will come again.

Most of the interrogations happen at night, Abdellatif says.

“They would put you in a room and fill it with water, about a foot of water, and so you couldn’t sleep, and leave you there, and put live electricity into the water.”

Hours become days become weeks. After two months, without warning, Abdellatif is released back on to the streets of Cairo.

But his arrest is only the beginning.

His life is about to descend into a haze of repeated arrests, detention, torture and ultimately exile.

Twice more, Sayed is arrested by the same security forces. He is held for three months each time.

In 1992, he flees Egypt.

Sydney's Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images
Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

TWENTY-THREE years later, Sayed Abdellatif sits in the noisy visitors hall of the high-security wing of Sydney’s Villawood detention centre.

Seated at a table near the middle of the room, he says a quiet “Hello” to a few fellow detainees who walk past.

But many he doesn’t know. They are just passing through, he says, here for a few weeks before they are moved somewhere else. He is here forever, he fears.

Abdellatif faces indefinite detention despite being found to have a prima facie claim to refugee status – he is a person Australia is obliged to protect – and an assessment from the inspector-general of intelligence and security that made clear he poses no threat to Australia’s national security.

Having fled Egypt in 1992, Abdellatif lived in exile across the world, at the fringes of the societies where he sought safety and security. He moved from Albania to the UK, Iran, and through Indonesia and Malaysia before finally reaching Australia in May 2012. Along the way he married and had six children: four daughters, followed by two sons.

The Abdellatifs’ claim for protection began unremarkably enough. After a series of interviews and corroborations of his evidence, Australian authorities found Abdellatif and his family to have a prima facie claim to refugee status: that is, they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland.

But when authorities also uncovered a historical – and flawed – Egyptian conviction against Abdellatif, his case is suddenly transformed into a political lightning rod for national security, with the Abbott-led Coalition, then in opposition, using the case to lambast the Gillard government’s handling of border security.
Labelling Abdellatif a “pool fence terrorist”, Abbott accused the government of failing to notice that a “convicted jihadist terrorist was kept for almost 12 months behind a pool fence”.

In 1999, seven years after he left Egypt, Abdellatif had been convicted in absentia in a mass show trial of 107 men in Cairo, a trial that was condemned as unfair by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, and has since been discredited in his home country as a politically motivated suppression of Islamic opposition.

A Guardian Australia investigation into the trial uncovered further serious irregularities, finding that the three most serious convictions on the Interpol notice were entirely false, and that the crimes had never even been alleged against Abdellatif in his trial.

That investigation resulted in Interpol dropping all convictions for violence against him.

Further court documents later uncovered by Guardian Australia – and which have been provided to Australian authorities – showed that the admissions used to convict Abdellatif on other charges, of membership of an extremist group and using forged documents, were obtained under torture. Abdellatif has denied these charges.

In 2014 Australian immigration department officers recommended to the then immigration minister, Scott Morrison, that Abdellatif and his family should be granted visas and released into the community. That was rejected by the minister.

Former Immigration Minister Scott Minister. Picture: Jelle/Flickr
Former Immigration Minister Scott Minister. Picture: Jelle/Flickr

In June this year the United Nations human rights council found Abdellatif’s detention was “illegal”, “arbitrary” and “indefinite”, and directed Australia to release the family and provide compensation for their wrongful detention.

The current immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has allowed Abdellatif to apply for a temporary protection visa, but his application has been stalled for more than five months, without any progress towards ending the family’s continued detention and separation.

Now, further documents obtained by Guardian Australia show the department has been told consistently over three years that Abdellatif’s mental health, and that of his family, is being harmed by his continued and indefinite high-security detention.

Sayed Abdellatif in 1997, aged 26. Supplied.
Sayed Abdellatif in 1997, aged 26. Supplied.

In confidential reports and his immigration entry interview, Abdellatif detailed to Australian authorities the full extent of his experience under Mubarak’s dictatorship.

He told immigration officials he does not know why he was targeted.

“I was 19 years old, a time when your [sic] thinking about your future. The only crime I committed was being in the mosque at that time.”

Mubarak’s military regime was ousted after three decades during Egypt’s 2011 revolution. His secular regime was widely condemned by human rights groups for brutal crackdowns on anyone seen to be part of the country’s Islamic opposition.

“Under the martial laws, the state security would come and arrest a group of people to show they were doing their job,” Abdellatif said.

“It starts as a random thing, then they start a file for you and then arrests will be regular.”

The inspector-general’s report found Abdellatif did not attempt to conceal or lie about his identity or past to Australian authorities at any time.

While in detention in Australia, Abdellatif was examined by a psychologist from the Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS).

A psychologist’s report from his detention in the UK also found the marks on Abdellatif’s body were consistent with a victim of torture.

It’s like a dark cloud. It’s frightening. Something grips my heart, it’s difficult to breathe

“He has one scar on his body that is typical of a cigarette burn, and others that are consistent with his story,” the psychologist said.

But his history of torture has left Abdellatif with not only physical scars, but psychological ones: injury compounded by his continuing detention.

“Symptoms have been further exacerbated by the fact that Mr Abdellatif remains in an environment he perceives as punitive and unsafe without a foreseeable resolution,” the STARTTS report told immigration department authorities in its assessment of Abdellatif’s psychological condition.

In detention, Abdellatif suffers nightmares, flashbacks, headaches, panic attacks and uncontrollable shaking. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.

“It’s like a dark cloud. It’s frightening. Something grips my heart, it’s difficult to breathe,” he told one psychologist.

In detention, Abdellatif feels powerless and unable to protect those who are closest to him, an anxiety most acute around his youngest son. The five-year-old has spent his entire life in detention.

“Mr Abdellatif feels that he is not able to completely fulfil his role and responsibilities as a father of his family while he lives away from them, and that he is not able to offer his protection,” the STARTTS report says.

Separation from his family compounds his sense of loneliness and isolation.

“Mr Abdellatif’s experiences have significantly been exacerbated as a result of the extended duration of his detention and the separation from his family.”

Villawood detention centre. Picture: Moyan Brenn/Flickr

The report finds Abdellatif’s health is being harmed by his detention.

“He would benefit from being released into the community with his family, in order to prevent further deterioration of his health.

“Providing a resolution to Mr Abellatif’s immigration status and ending his indefinite detention appears to be a vital precondition to his recovery.”

Internal departmental emails indicate the Abdellatif children are also affected by their father’s – and their own – detention.

A psychologist’s email reported to department staff that one Abdellatif son was “withdrawn” and “highly anxious about his father’s welfare” after Abdellatif was removed to higher-security detention.

The psychologist recommended: “In order to prevent further deteriorating of [his] mental state, his father[should] be united with his family.”

In May Abdellatif and his family were offered hope with the possibility of a temporary protection visa. “It was like light coming into a dark world”, he told Guardian Australia during one visit at Villawood.

But his hope is tinged with the uncertainty and despair of a limitless detention, a waiting game that could be ended in weeks, but may take months or years.

“I feel like I’ve become a file and this file has been thrown away,” he told a psychologist in detention.

“They say, ‘We know you’re innocent,’ but we still keep you in detention.”

ASIO · asylum · asylum seekers · injustice · investigation · journalism · media · politics · Sayed Abdellatif

UN called for asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif’s release – as featured in the Guardian

Front page of the Guardian Australia website.
Front page of the Guardian Australia website.

Exclusive: ‘Arbitrary’ detention of Egyptian asylum seeker, his wife and six children is ‘clearly disproportionate’, UN human rights council tells Australia.

By Ben Doherty and Sarah Malik
Sayed Abdellatif, an Egyptian asylum seeker falsely condemned as a terrorist by political leaders, should be immediately released from his “arbitrary” and “disproportionate” detention, which breaches international law, the UN has told Australia.

Abdellatif, his wife and six children have been held in detention for more than three years without charge.

In a seven-page formal communication sent in June and obtained by Guardian Australia, the UN’s human rights council – which Australia is seeking to join in two years – directed Australia to immediately release Abdellatif and his family. .

“Under international law Australia has a duty to release Mr Abdellatif, his wife and and their six children and accord them an enforceable right to compensation,” the council said.

But Abdellatif and his close-knit family – his wife and children daily endure the trial of wristbands, metal detectors and reinforced doors to see their husband and father in the high-security wing of Villawood detention centre – have said compensation is far from their minds.

“Freedom,” Abdellatif told Guardian Australia quietly amid the chaos of the detention centre visitors area. “We are only thinking about our freedom. We are not thinking about compensation.”

Abdellatif’s detention has exposed consistent and wilful failings within several government agencies. Asio, the Australian federal police and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection have collectively displayed “a lack of coordination, a duplication of effort and a lack of urgency”, in handling the family’s case, Australia’s statutory inspector general of intelligence and security, Vivienne Thom, found.

Abdellatif fled Egypt in 1992, having been tortured under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. 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.

He has remained in exile from his country since, living as a refugee in Albania, the UK, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and – finally – Australia.

All his children were born during that exile. His youngest, a five-year-old boy, has never lived a day free, only knowing life in detention in Indonesia and Australia.

Abdellatif and his family arrived in Australia in May 2012. Australia assessed his claim for protection and found that he and his family had legitimate claims to refugee status.

But while the family were in immigration detention in 2013 Australian authorities were alerted to an Interpol red notice that said that in 1999 Abdellatif was convicted – in a mass show trial in Cairo of 107 men – of premeditated murder, destruction of property, and possession of firearms and explosives. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The trial, criticised by rights groups at the time, was later found to have been fraudulent. Evidence against Abdellatif was obtained by “severe torture”, including electric shocks.

But the case became the centre of a political firestorm when the red notice became known publicly. The opposition leader, later prime minister, Tony Abbott labelled Abdellatif a “convicted jihadist” and a “pool-fence terrorist”, in reference to the low-security fencing at the Inverbrackie detention centre in South Australia. George Brandis, now the attorney general but then shadowing that position, said he was “plainly a convicted terrorist”.

The Abdellatifs were moved to the higher security Villawood detention centre in Sydney, where they have remained.

In a two-year investigation, the Guardian has shown:

Allegations of murder, firearms offences and property destruction were never made against Abdellatif at his Cairo trial and were wrongly attached to the Interpol red notice. After the Guardian’s investigation, which included examining the Egyptian court records and transcripts, Interpol took the extraordinary step of withdrawing those charges from the red notice.

The remaining convictions against Abdellatif, for “membership of a terrorist group” and “providing forged travel documents”, relied on evidence obtained under “severe torture”. Abdellatif was convicted in absentia, without any chance of defending himself against the allegations. He has denied both charges in a letter to the Guardian.

The Australian federal police were provided with evidence, in Arabic, that Abdellatif’s convictions for violent crimes were false, and had been withdrawn by Interpol, but took six months to translate the document – then failed to tell Asio or the immigration department of this new information.

A report by Australia’s inspector general of intelligence and security said Abdellatif had not been convicted of any terrorism-related charges and made clear he was not a threat to national security.

Scott Morrison, when immigration minister, defied the advice of officials from his own department, who had recommended Abdellatif be allowed to apply for a visa, and refused to allow Abdellatif to make an application.
In June this year, the UN human rights council’s working group on arbitrary detention wrote to the Australian government: “The detention is clearly disproportionate … the deprivation of liberty of Mr Abdellatif, his wife and their six children is arbitrary,” it said.

“Under international law Australia has a duty to release Mr Abdellatif, his wife and and their six children and accord them an enforceable right to compensation.”

Guardian Australia has made repeated attempts to seek information about Abdellatif’s case from the immigration department. After promising to provide answers to a series of questions, it declined to comment.

Abdellatif’s wife and family have previously been offered community detention but the family have consistently said they do not want to be separated from their husband and father.

Nearly six months after the UN direction, and after more than three and a half years in detention, the Abdellatifs remain incarcerated – Sayed Abdellatif in the high-security wing of Villawood detention centre, his wife and children in the family compound.

This year the department wrote to the family informing them that the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, had “lifted the bar” on their application for a protection visa. The family submitted a visa application in July, which has been acknowledged by the department as a “valid application”. But there has been no communication since.

Abdellatif says he feels that his life and those of his children are being slowly destroyed by their continuing detention and separation. “It’s been six months since the Australian government received [the UN] report but they did nothing, they ignored it completely,” he said.

“No one in the department is [taking] responsibility for our detention. We’re losing our lives by the immigration department of Australian government and no one cares. Who will take responsibility for this wasting of our lives?”

Abdellatif said he was constantly frustrated in his efforts to communicate with the department. He believed it was embarrassed by its handling of his case.

Analysis Sayed Abdellatif: asylum seeker trapped in detention by callous disregard
This man and his family remain locked in Australia’s detention system, despite recommendation from immigration department to grant visa

“They keep us in detention because we are found to be innocent,” he said. “They don’t want to say, ‘We were wrong’. They think, ‘We should keep them in detention to avoid embarrassment.’”

His children were suffering and the government was not interested in redressing its past mistakes, he said. “They think, ‘You can prove your innocence, but we are going to destroy you, every one of you.’”

The human rights council is one of the UN’s most powerful bodies, mandated with “the protection and promotion of all human rights around the globe”.

The foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, told Guardian Australia in September the government was “strongly committed” to a bid for a seat on the council for 2018-20.

Australia will compete against Spain and France for two seats from its poli-geographic group in 2017.

investigation · news

Morrison’s last stand- as featured in the Guardian

Check out PART TWO of my exclusive investigation with the The Guardian’s Ben Doherty on the continued detention of Egyptian asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif.

PART ONE ‘Who’s afraid of Sayed Abdellatif?‘ published yesterday, can be found here.


Former Immigration Minister Scott Minister. Picture: Twitter
Former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Twitter


EXCLUSIVE: Morrison defied advice in denying Sayed Abdellatif chance to apply for visa


In one of his final acts as immigration minister, Scott Morrison defied the advice of his officials by refusing to allow asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif to apply for a visa, despite all convictions for violence against him being found to be false. A government agency has also said he was no threat to national security.

The Egyptian father of six, falsely convicted in absentia of murder in a mass show trial that has since been discredited in his home country, remains in indefinite secure detention in Australia by ministerial order, more than a year after the minister’s own department chief said he should be considered for a visa.

A 2013 Guardian Australia investigation into irregularities in Abdellatif’s trial resulted in Interpol dropping all convictions for violence against him.

And court documents revealed by Guardian Australia – that have been provided to Australian authorities – state that the admissions used to convict Abdellatif on other charges, including testimony from his father and brother-in-law, were obtained under torture.

Despite the removal of all of the convictions involving violence, and serious doubts raised about the remaining crimes, Abdellatif remains incarcerated in a secure wing of Villawood, separated from his family, and facing the real prospect of indefinite detention, in immigration limbo until he dies.

Sydney's Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images
Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

It is also in spite of the government finding he and his family have a prima facie legitimate claim to refugee status, and the head of the immigration department asking then minister Morrison to consider allowing Abdellatif to apply for a visa.

A year ago, then secretary of the immigration department, Martin Bowles, wrote that a submission had been sent to Morrison, requesting he consider “lifting the bar” against Abdellatif applying for a visa.

“The submission requests minister Morrison’s consideration of his non-delegable, non-compellable power to lift the … bar for Mr Abdellatif and his family,” Bowles wrote.

However, after 10 months’ consideration, and in the final days of his term as immigration minister, on 10 December last year, Morrison refused to allow Abdellatif to apply for a visa.

Guardian Australia has obtained a copy of the letter sent to Abdellatif:

“After careful consideration of your case … the minister was not satisfied that it is in the public interest to exercise his power … to lift the application bar and allow you and your family to make an application for a protection … visa,” it says.

The minister offered no reason for his refusal, made under Section 46A(2) of the Migration Act, which grants the minister broad powers to refuse a visa application on grounds of undefined “public interest”.

Only the immigration minister can lift the bar.

Asked on Sky News to respond to Guardian Australia’s story about denying advice on Abdellatif’s case, Morrison said: “I don’t get into the habit of commenting on commentary. That report – I can’t verify that and I don’t think they can either.

“I never get into the habit of discussing what advice was provided to me as ministers and I’m quite sure that any advice they believe they have would not have been the full picture of the brief that was presented to me.

“That case did involve some security issues at the time and I’m not going to go into any further detail about that. The decision I made at that time was made at that time. It’s for other ministers to deal with how the situation may have regressed till today.”

The power now rests with Morrison’s successor, Peter Dutton. He refused to answer written inquiries about Abdellatif but a source within his department said the minister was aware of the case.

A spokesman for the department said it had “offered Mr Abdellatif’s family placement in the community. They declined this offer”. Abdellatif’s family say they do not want to be separated from their husband and father.

Morrison did not respond to questions on his decision to deny Abdellatif, as well as his wife and six children, the right to apply for a visa.

The Australian federal police told Guardian Australia it did not make recommendations on immigration matters, and that the extent of its inquiries into Abdellatif were to establish his identity. “The information contained in the Interpol Red Notice and any investigation into these allegations is a matter for the Egyptian authorities.”

The AFP directed all other inquiries on Abdellatif to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Asio, however, refused to answer questions, saying it “does not comment on individuals or investigations”.

However, Guardian Australia has confirmed Abdellatif remains the subject of an “adverse” security assessment by Asio, despite the withdrawal of all convictions for violence against him, and significant concerns over the fairness of his trial.

The case has been a consistent embarrassment to Australian authorities – in particular the immigration department, the AFP and Asio – whose handling of the case was condemned in a report by the inspector general of intelligence and security.

Dr Vivienne Thom found that the AFP was provided with evidence, in Arabic, showing Abdellatif’s convictions for violent crimes were false, and had been removed.

It took the agency six months to translate the documents, but, even then, the AFP did not tell Asio or immigration of this information.

“Overall there was a lack of co-ordination, a duplication of effort and a lack of urgency in obtaining information about whether a person in immigration detention potentially matched a national security alert.”

The inspector general’s report made it clear Abdellatif was not a threat to national security.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 17/1/15.