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 · human rights

Ramadan in Villawood- as featured in ABC’s The Drum

My latest feature in ABC’s The Drum.

Villawood detention centre.
Villawood detention centre.

Surviving Ramadan in Villawood

Feature: For many asylum seekers who experience a sense of hopelessness and isolation inside Villawood Detention Centre, Ramadan is a source of spiritual sustenance.

It’s iftar time in Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre.

Plastic containers bursting with hummus, tabouli, garlic sauce and kebab snake their way through security and are picked up by hungry fasting asylum seekers in the visitor’s centre.

In the open courtyard around 30 asylum seekers, mostly men, gather around tables piled with the food, exhaling plumes of smoke as they rub their hands together for warmth and wait for sundown.

As Muslims around the world sit down to huge feasts at Ramadan surrounded by loved ones, it’s a lonely and fraught affair for asylum seekers inside Villawood.

Street iftar in Turkey. Picture: Flickr/ Alper Orus
Street iftar in Turkey. Picture: Flickr/ Alper Orus

Asylum seeker Iqbal* says being away from family and friends has been tough. “It is very painful. Nothing is like home when it comes to Ramadan,” he said.

Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims who abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours, with an increased focus on devotion and prayer.

“It is a very holy month for us,” Iqbal said. “People who are not practicing other months, they become practising this month.”

For many asylum seekers who experience a sense of hopelessness and isolation inside, Ramadan is a source of spiritual sustenance.

“It is as important as seeing a mental health counsellor,” Iqbal said. He says many of the men who are reluctant to express themselves will openly cry during prayer.

“This is how we are still coping. That’s what’s keeping us alive, keeping us going, faith and belief in God.”

The asylum seekers are grateful for the delicious food delivered from outside, a welcome relief from the standard issue dinner.

The nightly deliveries facilitated by the Lebanese Muslim Association are funded by a rotation of private donors from the Muslim community.

Earlier in the month, food was not delivered because of limits around amounts allowed in, to be accompanied by a certain amount of visitors, Iqbal said.

“Sometimes we asked why there is no food came today. We found out later they were stopped and refused entry,” he said.

A LMA spokesperson said there were difficulties delivering food to the centre during the first few days of Ramadan.

“By now after all this time they (authorities) should know about this (Ramadan),” he said.

A recent rule change meant food was not allowed to be brought back into the private rooms of asylum seekers from the central visitors area, Iqbal said.

The rule fuelled wastage as fasting asylum seekers struggled to finish their allocation in a short period.

“(The idea being) we’ll let you bring in food but we won’t let you enjoy it,” Iqbal said.

“Little people have a little authority and they are just abusing it.”

In the centre, the men munch the food in the cold before returning to their rooms for solitary prayer.

Iqbal says a petition has been made for a room asylum seekers can gather in for congregational prayer.

“To cope in this situation we need that. When they make us pray alone in our rooms, we feel even more lonely and the toll becomes hard on us,” he said.

“They should provide a good facility because we are not criminals. We are not inmates.”

As night falls in Villawood, food containers are hastily packed as visitors say their final goodbyes and exit the mesh of wire and steel.

For those remaining, there is hope that someone, somewhere is listening, hoping, praying.

“We are the silenced ones. People don’t know about us,” Iqbal said.

A copy obtained of Villawood detention centre general manager Susan Noordink’s response to an official complaint made by fasting asylum seekers says standard conditions are being enforced.

“In regards to Ramadan food from the community, Islamic detainees have been advised that all standard conditions of entry will be in force,” Ms Noordink said.

“All community groups must abide by approved visits policy as provided by management and posted in notification in the Gatehouse and the visits area.”

The statement also said arrangements will be made to facilitate prayer areas for asylum seekers.

*Name has been changed at the request of the asylum seeker


CHECK OUT: At work inside our detention centres: A guard’s story 

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum ( Read the original article here (