Human rights groups have condemned the continued incarceration of Egyptian asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif after a Guardian Australia investigation revealed the United Nations had formally told the Australian government he should be immediately released.
Falsely condemned as a terrorist by political leaders, Abdellatif, his wife and six children have been held in detention for more than three years without charge.
In the first of a three-part series, the Guardian on Monday revealed the UN Human Rights Council in June ruled Abdellatif’s detention breached international law, was indefinite and arbitrary, and directed Australia to release him and compensate him for his wrongful detention.
The series also revealed the struggles of Abdellatif’s two eldest daughters, the first students to graduate from high school while incarcerated at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre, as well as detailing the torture inflicted on Abdellatif by Egypt’s State Security Investigation Service (SSI) under former dictator Hosni Mubarak, which forced him to flee his homeland in 1992.
Amnesty refugee campaigns spokesman Graeme McGregor said government intransigence around Abdellatif’s case was a result of the negative publicity the story had generated.
“It’s outrageous that these children are being denied the opportunity to have a normal adolescence with their father,” he said. “It’s hard not to believe the only reason Mr Abdellatif is trapped in detention is because of the political embarrassment that surrounds the case.
“We often lose sight of the fact a family that came to Australia to build their life have been denied that opportunity.”
The vice-president of the Muslim Legal Network, Rabea Khan, also criticised the family’s continued detention despite an assessment from the inspector-general of intelligence and security that made clear Abdellatif poses no threat to Australia’s national security. The inspector-general also criticised the government’s handling of Abdellatif’s case.
“It’s disturbing that the Australian government continues to sit on its hands instead of going ahead and releasing this man from detention,” Khan said.
“This is yet another example of the government playing political football with the plight of refugees.”
In 1999, seven years after he left Egypt, Abdellatif was convicted in absentia in a mass show trial of 107 men in Cairo. The trial was condemned as unfair byAmnesty and Human Rights Watch. It has also since been discredited in his home country as a politically motivated suppression of Islamic political opposition.
Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul said Australian authorities had used the red notice as an excuse for not processing Abdellatif.
“All the evidence points that the red notice was placed there wrongly by the Egyptian government as a politically motivated [tool] to victimise Sayed,” Rintoul said.
Rintoul said all the evidence showed the family should not be in detention.
“The degree the government has caused Sayed and his family to suffer cannot be overstated,” he said.
“They have been forced to deal with humiliation inside detention and the girls at school – and for no reason other than the government would not face up to the fact that they made a terrible mistake in keeping them in detention in the first place.”
Human Rights Law Centre legal advocacy director Daniel Webb said Australia’s detention regime made detaining people a first resort, and vested extraordinary powers over people’s lives in the position of immigration minister.
“Giving relatively unchecked powers over peoples’ basic rights to one politician is a recipe for injustice,” he said.
“The result is a nightmare for the people – like Sayed’s family – who get caught up in the system, locked up with no appeal rights, not knowing if or when they’ll ever be released.”
The government has maintained a resolute silence on Abdellatif’s case, despite being offered several opportunities to comment.
Guardian Australia has repeatedly approached the government for a response.
For the latest series, Guardian Australia first provided written questions to the immigration department on 22 October. After initially agreeing to provide answers by 30 October, a department spokesman has since refused to answer any questions and directed all queries to the office of the minister, Peter Dutton.
Dutton’s office has not responded to any inquiries.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.