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.

asylum seekers · detention · human rights

Asylum seeker in hospital after setting himself on fire- as featured in the Guardian

By  and

An asylum seeker at Villawood detention centre has set himself on fire and is in hospital with serious burns, sparking an investigation by the immigration department.

The male asylum seeker sought protection in Australia along with his family in 2010 and now has six children including a two month old infant.
The asylum seeker’s wife told Guardian Australia she was at a library with her children when she received a call about the incident.

“From what I’ve been told is that it is self inflicted harm and it’s a burn incident,” she said. “There was about 10% burns on his face right down to the left of his neck.”

She said the immigration department has not provided her with further details about the incident or events preceding it.

Her husband had been suffering depression since he was taken to Villawood in January 2015. He made a previous self-harm attempt while in detention.

“He has not seen or touched the newborn child,” she said. “He doesn’t want the kids to even see him in detention. He doesn’t want them to be a part of it.”

The family sought protection in Australia from the United Arab Emirates after arriving on a tourism visa by plane to Australia in 2010. They were refused a protection visa in 2010, and lost an appeal to the refugee review tribunal in 2011.

The man was taken back into detention following an unsuccessful federal court bid. His wife and children were also taken to Villawood detention centre in June 2015, but were released so she could give birth to her sixth child.

The family has exhausted most avenues of legal appeal for their protection claims in Australia.

“Why he did this is because he felt so helpless,” the man’s wife said. “Sometimes it’s too much. I cannot measure it anymore.”

A spokeswoman for Department of Immigration and Border Protection said: “The department can confirm that a male detainee was taken to hospital yesterday 17 September 2015, following a self-harm incident at Villawood IDC.
“The individual is receiving appropriate medical treatment, but his injuries have been assessed as non-life threatening. The department is investigating the matter.”

The incident is the second time a person held in immigration detention has set themselves on fire this week.

On Tuesday Ali Jaffari, a Hazara man in Perth immigration detention centre, also set himself on fire and later died from his injuries.

In May 2014 a Tamil asylum seeker, Leo Seemanpillai, self- immolated after spending 18 months in legal limbo.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.

This article was originally published in the Guardian.  Read the original article here.


asylum seekers · news

Who’s afraid of Sayed Abdellatif? – as featured in the Guardian

I have recently been working on a lengthy investigation with the The Guardian’s Ben Doherty on the continued detention of Egyptian asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif.

For those who aren’t familiar with the case, Abdellatif and his family attracted national media attention in 2013 when Tony Abbott, then in opposition dubbed him the ‘pool fence’ terrorist and slammed the Labor government of the day for failing to note that a ‘convicted jihadist terrorist was kept for almost 12 months behind a pool fence’.

A Guardian investigation later exonerated him of all violence-related offences, dating back the Mubarak dictatorship era, contradicting claims Abdellatif was a security threat.

I spent hours with Abdellatif and his family inside Villawood detention centre. The family who have been denied the right to apply for an Australian visa, remain in limbo. For the first time they speak about  life in detention and  reflections on being Australia’s most infamous detainees.

We also reveal new documents which show evidence used to convict Abdellatif in an Egyptian military court – the basis for his indefinite detention in Australia – was obtained by torture.

Check out the first instalment here with further updates and behind the scenes information on the blog.

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


Revealed: indefinite detention of asylum seeker is based on conviction secured by torture

Exclusive: Sayed Abdellatif faces a lifetime of indefinite detention in Australia because of an adverse Asio assessment relying on evidence from an Egyptian court which documents show was obtained by torture


Evidence used to convict asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif in an Egyptian military court – the basis for his indefinite detention in Australia – was obtained by torture, court documents state.

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, despite the inspector general of intelligence and security finding he was not a threat to national security.

The three most serious convictions against him were found to be false, and entirely discarded by Interpol, following a Guardian Australia investigation two years ago.

Now, court documents state torture, including by electric shock, was used to gather false admissions on other charges against him.

Abdellatif’s own father, forced to give evidence against his son more than a decade ago, has sworn before a Cairo court “my words regarding my son… are incorrect and were said due [to] compulsion and torture by investigating authorities”.

Despite the new information, 44-year-old Abdellatif faces a lifetime of indefinite detention in Australia without charge or the prospect of release and sees only “a dark future”.

“I will be ignored for years … they used my life and my family’s life as a game,” he told Guardian Australia.

In his first interview from inside detention, Abdellatif spoke of the difficulties of being separated from his wife and children inside Sydney’s Villawood centre where they are all held.

His six children, who must wear security wrist-bands to see their father, only want to lead normal lives, he says, lives where they don’t have to walk to school flanked by security guards.

“We don’t see Dad except on weekends,” one of his daughters said. “We don’t sit as a family, I don’t remember the last time we had a proper meal together.”

The Australian government has found Abdellatif and his family have a prima facie legitimate claim to refugee status, but the Egyptian convictions have caused his asylum case to stall.

Abdellatif was convicted in 1999 in a mass trial of 107 men in Cairo military court.

The trial was widely condemned, by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and others, as a political show trial, that relied on evidence obtained under torture, and was contrived to marginalise Islamist political opposition to the Mubarak regime.

In absentia, Abdellatif was convicted of premeditated murder, firearms possession, property destruction, membership of a terrorist group, and document forgery.

In 2013, a Guardian Australia investigation into Abdellatif’s trial showed there was no mention of murder, weapons, or property destruction at his trial.

The investigation resulted in Interpol dropping all convictions for violence against Abdellatif.

Abdellatif’s original 1999 conviction relies on the evidence of five men also accused in the same mass trial (one of whom has since been hanged), an Egyptian army officer, and Abdellatif’s father. The evidence presented to the court alleges Abdellatif was a member of a terror network, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, that attended meetings of the group, and helped illicitly move money to members.

Abdellatif has consistently denied the allegations. He told Guardian Australia: “I have never been a member of any group. The Egyptian government [under Mubarak] used to falsely paste this charge to any person they want to punish or to get rid of.”

Now, 2013 court documents – obtained by Guardian Australia, and that have also been provided to the Australian authorities – state that the admissions used to convict Abdellatif, including testimony from his father and brother-in-law, were obtained under torture.

The documents have been verified by authorities in Cairo.

The 1999 court documents state that Abdellatif’s father, Ahmed, told investigators his son had occasionally sent him money, usually in the hundreds of dollars, to be deposited in certain accounts, and that his son “belongs to a religious group but [his father] did not know the name of the group”.

However, a testified declaration signed by Abdellatif’s father states: “I declare that all of what has been said as my words regarding my son… are incorrect and were said due [to] compulsion and torture by investigating authorities”.

Abdellatif’s brother-in-law, Essam Abdel Tawwab, a co-accused in the 1999 trial, gave evidence then that Abdellatif was a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

But in 2013, he told the ministry of justice in a signed affidavit: “I … declare that all the statements that were attributed to me in the public prosecution … especially the statements that mention Sayed Ahmed Abdelmaksoud Abdellatif were written from the Security book and dictated by the Deputy Public Prosecutor. I objected to the statements and I denied them. I was subjected to torture and electrocution in order to sign the paper.”

Affidavits submitted to the Egyptian supreme military court from two more of the co-accused who gave evidence against Abdellatif state: “their confessions in this case were the result of severe torture and physical and moral compulsion that they were subjected to by the dissolved State Security Apparatus”.

The State Security Investigations Service, the principal domestic security and intelligence agency of the Mubarak regime, and which conducted the investigation, was dissolved in 2011, after evidence emerged it was involved in “extraordinary rendition”, and tools of torture and secret cells were uncovered at its headquarters.

In a 2012 re-trial of seven of the convicted men, Egypt’s supreme military court ruled on the evidence presented in the mass trial of the 107: “the claims and accusations against those accused are surrounded by thick layers of doubt and suspicion that weakens the evidence derived therefrom”. All seven were acquitted.

An Interpol red notice on Abdellatif’s name still exists. It now lists convictions for “membership in a terrorist group” and “providing forged travel documents”, charges Abdellatif strenuously denies.

The terror conviction relates to allegations that Abdellatif was an operative of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, of which he said “I have never been a member”.

His only other purported “link” with terrorism was his employment by the Albanian branch of the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. This was mentioned at his 1999 trial, but was not part of his conviction.

Abdellatif left RIHS, an multi-national Islamic civil society organisation, in 1996.

Six years later, in 2002 – and three years after Abdellatif’s convictions in Cairo – the Pakistan and Afghanistan branches of RIHS were proscribed by the United Nations after they were infiltrated by al-Qaida.

Those branches alone remain outlawed. The UN’s Consolidated List of wanted terrorists and terror organisations states: “Only the Pakistan and Afghanistan offices of this entity are designated”.

However, in 2008, the US government banned the organisation worldwide, alleging it “used charity and humanitarian assistance as cover to fund terrorist activity”.

Abdellatif claims, while he worked at RIHS, the Albanian branch was “clear” and he never had any involvement in organising or funding terrorism.

“It was a charity organisation. We were building mosques, supporting adoption.”

Abdellatif’s employment by RIHS has never been part of any conviction against him. No authorities have ever alleged his involvement with RIHS was improper, or linked to any terrorist activities.

Abdellatif also denies the final Interpol conviction: providing forged travel documents.

A report last year by Australia’s inspector general of intelligence and security found Abdellatif did not attempt to conceal, or lie about, his identity to Australian authorities at any time.

Abdellatif has provided the Egyptian court documents, and translations, to Australian authorities.

The Australian federal police said its inquiries were simply “to ascertain the identity of Mr Abdellatif”.

“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, a source with knowledge of the case 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 on other charges.

Abdellatif’s wife and children have been refused protection visas but told by immigration they can live in the community. They declined, saying they did not want to be separated from their husband and father.

From his detention compound in Villawood, Abdellatif told Guardian Australia he had been honest with Australian authorities “but they cheated me”.

He said Australian Federal Police did not reveal to him the details of the initial “red notice”, and he was not told of the false convictions against him.

“The first time I became aware [of the charges] was from the media. I was shocked.

“During the interview with AFP I told them everything, but they hid everything from me. They didn’t tell me anything. I didn’t know why I was put at extreme level of risk.”

Abdellatif says he has lost faith in the Australian government, which he believes is keeping him incarcerated out of embarrassment at its own consistent mishandling of his case.

“They don’t want to say sorry. They want to say ‘we were right and you were wrong’.”

“We are innocent people and we proved our innocence,” Abdellatif says. “I want to prove my innocence to the Australian community because I don’t trust the Australian government.”

The inspector general’s report from last year said Abdellatif was not a threat to national security.

The report also heavily criticised Asio, the AFP and the immigration department for their handling of the case, saying the authorities lacked urgency, withheld information from each other, and made basic errors.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on the 16/1/15.