Writers in Australian detention


On Monday, 29 November, Sarath Amarasinghe, a forty-two year old Sri Lankan businessman and journalist who has been in Australian detention for almost three years, joined fellow Sri Lankan inmates in Baxter Detention Centre on a hunger strike. They were desperate to have their cases reopened after years of indefinite imprisonment.

Sarath says he fled Sri Lanka after receiving death threats connected with his membership of the opposition United National Party. Although this party eventually came to power, it did so in collaboration with elements of the original ruling party he opposed. With his latest application for a visa having just been refused, Amarasinghe remains convinced his life is in danger should he return.

While in detention, Amarasinghe has produced thirteen editions of a newsletter called Baxter News. The publication is a voice for inmates critical of inhumane conditions in detention, and includes articles documenting detainee hardships and abuse. The Baxter News is an extraordinary feat of courage given the hostile conditions in which it is produced.

As a result of his writings in detention, Amarasinghe was able to become a member of Sydney PEN. When Amarasinghe announced his intention to join the Baxter hunger strike, Australian centres of International PEN released statements of both their support, and concern about the consequences of the strike on the health of participating detainees. Sydney PEN’s Rosie Scott, Denise Leith and Thomas Keneally fasted in empathy with the strikers outside the Department of Immigration on Thursday evening, 1 December, whilst other members joined them in a vigil. PEN centres in other states publicised their actions with media releases and opinion pieces.

These efforts highlight the work of Australian PEN centres on behalf of detained asylum seekers in recent years. International PEN was founded in London in 1921 to represent the interests of writers worldwide. In 1960, it set up a ‘Writers in Prison Committee’, in response to mounting concerns about attempts to silence writers in many countries. Every six months it produces a booklet that documents the cases of writers who have been threatened, imprisoned, tortured, beaten, exiled, or assassinated for their contrary views.

In 2002, Ivory Coast journalist, Cheikh Kone became International PEN’s first major Australian Writer in Prison case when he was defined as a ‘writer at risk.’ Until then, Australia had been one of the few countries that had never been listed in the booklet.

Kone’s case was brought to light by Melbourne schoolteacher Peter Job who first made contact with him in February 2002, when a refugee advocacy group organized a letter writing campaign to inmates in Australia’s isolated detention centres. Job’s correspondent, ‘Detainee number, NBP451’, turned out to be Cheikh Kone. He had been imprisoned in the Port Hedland Centre since January 2001. Job sent an outline of his case to International PEN’s Melbourne Centre, and the information was forwarded to London for investigation.

In the late 1990s, Kone had worked as a journalist for the Ivory Coast newspaper, Le Patriote. He was first arrested in 1997 after writing an article criticizing the country’s electoral system. He was detained for three months, interrogated, regularly beaten, and released without any charges being laid.

In December 1999, the Ivory Coast government was overthrown by the military. When elections were held in October 2000, the opposition RDR party was banned from taking part. The military ruler General Guehi declared himself the winner and, in response to a request from the editor of Le Patriote, Kone wrote an article that asserted the election results were rigged. He gave the article to the editor, but it was never published. Within hours of handing it in, Kone was warned by family members and friends that the military were looking for him.

He was hidden in a jeep, and driven, at 3 am, to the Ghanain border. He continued his escape via Togo to Benin, and by boat to Durban in South Africa. Six weeks later he stowed away on a container ship under a Panamanian flag. After the ship arrived in Fremantle on 18 January 2001, Kone was questioned by Immigration officials and eventually transferred by plane to the Port Hedland Detention Centre. His applications for refugee status were subsequently rejected at all levels, including the Federal Court of Australia.

It took just one phone call by Dixe Wills of International PEN’s London office, to Patrice Guehi, publisher of Le Patriote, to finally establish that Kone had indeed worked for that newspaper. Guehi also confirmed that Kone had fled the country after suffering persecution. He was eventually released from Port Hedland on 29 July 2003, but not without incurring an Australian Government bill of $89,000 for his accommodation.

Kone’s case was the first of several adopted by Australian PEN Centres. Others have included Iraqi doctor Aamer Sultan and Cambodian journalist Lam Khy Try. Dr Sultan courageously supported fellow inmates in Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre, and published several ground breaking medical papers and eye witness accounts of the severe traumas suffered by detained asylum seekers, particularly children.

Rosie Scott met Lan Khy Try in Villawood Detention Centre. Try had fled Cambodia after receiving death threats for a series of articles exposing government corruption, and illegal logging. In a statement written for Sydney PEN in November 2003, Try wrote: ‘I was followed and I was fearful. After the director of our newspaper died in suspicious circumstances, all of the newspaper staff were afraid and the newspaper was closed. My family and I went into hiding.’

As a child, Try was taken from his mother by the Khmer Rouge to work in the fields. His mother’s family was killed. In his statement, Try said that as a journalist in post Khmer Rouge Cambodia he was angry at continued corruption and killings, and ‘wanted to write about it.’ In doing so, he discovered that his country was ‘still very dangerous for journalists who talk about the government.’

Try and his wife were eventually released to France in early 2004, with the help of a number of International agencies, and representations by both Sydney PEN, and the chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, Eugene Schoulgin.

Most recently, Australian PEN has been alerted to the case of Iranian writer, journalist and political activist, Ardeshir Gholipour who has been in Australian immigration detention since May 2000. Ardeshir says he was involved in the Freedom Movement of Iran from 1985 onwards, and the Left Union for Democracy in Iran since 1994. In 1987 he was imprisoned for twenty one months for distributing material on behalf of the Freedom Movement. Ardeshir continued to write for a number of Iranian publications until he fled the country in March 2000, in fear of his life. After three and a half years of Australian detention he remains an inmate in Baxter. He has continued to write, especially letters of support for other detainees, alerting people in the community to their plight. Ardeshir has also taken up art, and he painted numerous wall murals while previously detained in Port Hedland.

Another major initiative of Australian PEN was a collection of writings, many of which were produced by asylum seekers held in detention. Edited by Rosie Scott and Thomas Keneally, the anthology, Another Country, includes journalism, fiction, oral testimony, drama, cartoons and diary entries. Originally published in a recent edition of Southerly, and due out in an expanded edition next year, the dominant form is poetry, a reflection of the fact that many of the inmates come from Middle Eastern societies with cherished poetic traditions.

Both Cheikh Kone and Sarath Amarasinghe contributed to the anthology, the latter with his poignant poem Faith in Kids. Iranian poet, Tony Zandavar who, until his recent release had spent over five years in Port Hedland and Baxter, writes, in his poem Expectation: ‘Instead of a small cage, the great men have made a great cage and called it detention/ Instead of a small bird, the great men have placed miserable human beings behind bars.’ In Zandavar’s words, Australia’s detention centres are places where you ‘can cry gently, noiselessly’.

Iranian poet, Mohsen Soltany Zand, who spent over four years in Port Hedland and Villawood centres, reflects the despair of fellow inmates when he writes: ‘I can see freedom, the red of nature’s sunset/and God on a sharp razor.’ Iraqi inmate, Khalid Al Sharifi writes: ‘Rain falls and the sunlights the earth/We didn’t come from another planet/We have our own deserved place on earth/We didn’t cross the ocean to live in prison.’ Fourteen year-old Mina cries out in the pages of her Woomera diary: ‘Oh, God help us, help everyone.’

Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Perth PEN centres continue to support detained asylum seekers-come-writers in various forums, including PEN sponsored writers’ festival panels, special evenings of refugee readings, local advocacy, and through representations by International PEN when asylum seekers are seen to be at risk for their writing. As a result it has been short-listed for the HREOC Human Rights award for community organizations.

PEN is one of many organizations Australia wide who support and lobby for the rights of asylum seekers. These include groups such as Rural Australians for Refugees, city based Asylum Seeker Resource Centres, Melbourne’s Hotham mission, Brisbane’s Romero centre, the Sydney-based Edmund Rice Centre and Chilout, Adelaide’s Circles of Friends, Perth’s Project Safecom, the Fitzroy Learning Network, and the Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture, among many others.

These groups have provided support at a time when asylum seekers and refugees have been cruelly misrepresented by the nation’s political leaders, and either detained, or left in limbo on temporary protection visas. They have helped humanise their plight when they have been demonised, and have provided material assistance and moral support, when they have been abandoned or left destitute. They are a saving grace in hostile times.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.