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.
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“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.