The Bureaucratisation of Evil


In what may be the dying days of the Coalition Government, it is easy to see John Howard as an old man with his best days behind him – cranky and frazzled perhaps but an old bloke doing his best. It is easy to lose sight of the Australia he has done so much to create.

Which is why reading Tony Kevin’s article in on the sixth anniversary of the SIEV X disaster was like a taking a cold shower particularly his last sentence: ‘Lest we forget.’

I had begun to forget. I had forgotten those moments that, like lightning striking land, illuminate John Howard’s Australia.

Like the afternoon of 12 November , 2003.

Amnesty International ad from 2003

I had spent the entire day at a conference held in NSW Parliament House convened by the National Mental Health Alliance. The Alliance, representing over 5000 mental health workers, had called the crisis meeting to discuss publicly the findings of their research into the effects of mandatory detention on asylum seekers.

Paper after paper was given by some of Australia’s most prestigious psychiatrists and psychologists. They were a catalogue of trauma and abuse. Men, women and children driven to suicide and madness by a lethal combination of disinterest, neglect and poll-driven pragmatism.

The Iraqi woman who had fled Saddam Hussein’s regime after watching her husband, father and two brothers gunned down in front her. She arrived in Australia seven months pregnant. With no relatives, friends or understanding of what was happening to her, she was moved from Woomera detention centre to Port Augusta Hospital where she gave birth to her baby girl under guard.

Two years later, she and her little girl were still receiving treatment her depression only just kept at bay by the constant care of newly formed friendships. The little girl was developmentally delayed and her attachment to her mum frayed and thin.

Then there was the 10-year-old Afghani boy, who in a fit of rage and despair sat down in the dust and carved ‘freedom’ into his arm.

Or the father of five who watched his wife go mute from despair and his three sons attempt to kill themselves during their three years of incarceration in the camps. The lists and details were endless banal and evil.

But my note taking came to a halt when I heard Dr Louise Newman, one of Australia’s most respected psychiatrists, say during her presentation: ‘What I’m describing here is State-sponsored torture and child abuse.’

I looked up and scanned the podium and conference room, waiting for someone to say something that would challenge her, break the spell, the suspense. Newman paused briefly and looked around, as if expecting the same thing and finding none went back to reading her notes.

Next up was Dr Michael Dudley, head of Suicide Prevention Australia. Again, he laid out the results of his and his colleagues’ research. More stories of trauma and suffering. He repeated the accusation saying: ‘The Federal Government is engaged in State-sponsored child abuse and torture.’

I left the conference and, walking back to work, felt like I had just been to a funeral that surreal sense of having seen someone you love buried, while the rest of the world carried on as if life would last forever.

I had never heard anyone accuse an Australian government of engaging in torture or child abuse. I had never seen this kind of research done in Australia. There had never been a cause for it.

I should not have been so shocked. Over the previous 12 months I had written about the deaths of two young men who had fled to Australia seeking refuge and protection.

The first was a young Pakistani man, Ahad Bilal.

Bilal had fled Pakistan after his grandfather and uncle had been killed by a drug-smuggling network operating in north Pakistan . He told the Department of Immigration he would be killed if he was forced to return and he asked for Australia’s protection under the UN Refugee Convention. He was refused.

The day before Bilal was sent back, he met some friends from the Balmain Uniting Church. As they were leaving, Bilal told them not to be sad, because he said, ‘If God allows, I shall survive.’

Four weeks later, Bilal was murdered.

He was found with his hands tied behind his back, sitting on a chair in a locked room. Doctors later confirmed he had died from poisoning and a heroin overdose.

I asked the then-Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, whether he believed Australia had contravened its UN treaty obligations in sending Bilal back. A spokesman for Ruddock told me that the Minister had done no such thing and he understood that Bilal had died of a heart attack.

The second fatality was a young Hazara Afghan, Mohammad Mussa Nazari.

By the second half of 2002, with the Taliban in retreat and disarray, the Federal Government had launched a program to repatriate the almost 4000 Afghans living on Nauru and in Australia on temporary protection visas. Despite offering the financial incentive of $2000 per single person, many Hazaras (an ethnic minority in Afghanistan) were still afraid of a resurgent Taliban presence and persecution by the majority Pashtun population. That is, until a Pashtun interpreter used by the Immigration department began sending emails from Afghanistan to various people on Nauru telling them how peaceful and safe the country was.

Dutch psychiatrist Dr Maarten Dormaar, who was working for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) on Nauru at the time, told the Australian Financial Review: ‘I was arguing with some colleagues from IOM, saying it was not safe for the Hazaras to be sent back, when one of my colleagues said I was wrong and produced these emails.’ The emails said Afghanistan was wonderful and that it was safe to travel everywhere.

At the same time Minister Ruddock, put out a press release saying: ‘The Afghan transitional government has emphasised the stability and safety that has been brought to the region, paving the way for Afghan nationals to return.’

According to Afghan specialist William Maley, the idea that Afghanistan was a safe country for Hazaras in 2002 was fanciful. ‘I was in Afghanistan a few months after that and it is a fantasy to say it was safe,’ he says. ‘In September 2002, a massive bomb killed 30 people in Kabul.’

Mohammad Mussa Nazari was one of the first Hazaras to put the safety of the country to the test. He joined a group of 113 people and returned to Afghanistan in the first major repatriation flight from Nauru. Within 10 months of his return home, Nazari was shot dead by Taliban forces while riding his motorbike through the Zardak Pass.

A spokesman for Minister Ruddock explained that Nazari had not been killed because he was Hazaran but because of banditry.

Ninety-three percent of those held in detention by Australia between 1998 and 2003 were found to be refugees. It is also important to remember what it is they were fleeing.

On 16 February, 2004, Julian Burnside QC made a speech at a Melbourne Rotary Function. Towards the end of his speech he told his audience the story of Fatimeh. It provides a sketch of what refugees live in fear of and the mistakes that can be made in this Kafkaesque situation:

‘Fatimeh (not her real name) arrived in Australia from Iran in mid-1999. She converted to Christianity in early 2000, and began preaching against Islam. She was baptised in August 2000, after the Department of Immigration lifted its ban on baptism in detention. In late August, Hussein (not his real name) an Iranian man held in the same detention camp, left Australia voluntarily and returned to Iran. Hussein informed on Fatimeh. Her family in Iran contacted her to tell her she was in great danger if she returned to Iran. Preaching against Islam is a serious offence in Iran. If she returned she faced the prospect of being stoned to death.

‘I have seen an official video tape of two women being stoned to death. They are brought out wrapped from head to foot in some kind of shroud. They are placed in holes which are about 3 feet deep. The dirt is shovelled in around them, so that their bodies are buried to waist level. They are then bombarded with medium sized stones from all sides. They cannot flinch in anticipation, because they cannot see. They flinch after each blow. Gradually blood begins to seep through the shroud; their bodies start to sag forward. Eventually they collapse completely, and their bloodied skulls are clearly visible through the torn material. They are dragged out of the holes and are carried away.

‘A central fact in Fatimeh’s claim for asylum was that Hussein had returned to Iran and informed on her. Five witnesses gave evidence that Hussein had been in the camp at the relevant time, and that he had taken some of Fatimeh’s writings with him when he returned to Iran. No witness contradicted that evidence. Fatimeh told the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) Hussein’s camp number and his boat number. She asked the RRT to check on Hussein to dispel any doubt about this part of her claim.

‘The RRT found, as a fact, that Hussein did not exist. The tribunal member found, as a fact, that Hussein’s existence had been fabricated by Fatimeh and her witnesses in order to fortify her claim for asylum. When the case came to be reviewed in court, a subpoena to the Department produced documents which showed not only that Hussein existed, but that he had been in the camp exactly when Fatimeh said he had, and that he left for Iran exactly when she said he had.

‘The tribunal member had not even bothered to ask the Department whether they had a record of Hussein. That casual indifference would very likely have led to Fatimeh’s death. When the decision came on for review in court, the Department argued that the decision should not be overturned. It appeared not to trouble the RRT or the Department that, if Fatimeh were returned to Iran, she would almost certainly be stoned to death.’

Fatimeh was eventually granted a Temporary Protection Visa.

There may be a change of government on 24 November, but in order for there to be a change, we must not forget the moments of illumination that showed us what we are really capable of doing.

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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.