On Friday, custodial sentences were handed down in the NSW Supreme Court for five men charged with offences resulting from a “disturbance” at Villawood Detention Centre in April 2011. The men were charged with riot. Ali Haidari and Naim Amiri received sentences of 22 months, and longer sentences totaling three years were given to Taleb Feili and Majid Parhizkar.
Justice Hulme said the context in which the activities of the offenders occurred must be taken into account. He described it as “mob violence”.
“Legal avenues are available for detainees who seek to question or challenge decisions made by government officials concerning their claims for asylum. The courts will certainly not condone the actions of those who resort to violence instead,” he said.
The evidence if taken on its own seemed relatively minor. In the case of Haidari, he was found to have been involved in picking up roof tiles and passing them to someone else (Majid), who threw them. He had also been found to have thrown some tiles himself.
Five men who had entered into a plea deal with the crown had already been sentenced. They had pleaded guilty beforehand to a lesser charge of affray, (meaning to use or threaten violence in such a way as to cause a person of reasonable firmness to fear for their safety). All received sentences of imprisonment ranging from 16 months through to two years.
A friend of mine was a member of this group. I know him well. I see him every Sunday and I am a regular visitor to Villawood. He received the longest sentence for affray.
The night of the 20 April 2011 was terrifying for all involved. An attempt by two asylum seekers, later joined by up to 11 others, to protest their prolonged detention, turned violent. Tiles were thrown from the roof, materials were stockpiled on the soccer field and set alight.
Serco officers pleaded with “clients” to come down off the roof. These attempts were futile. They eventually evacuated the compound leaving more than 100 people behind. Buildings were set ablaze, smoke filled the rooms, and “clients” who missed the evacuation were terrified.
The next day, 22 people were pointed out and rounded up by Serco officers and the Australian Federal Police. They were carted off to Silverwater jail for various lengths of time. Some of the people pointed out were not involved. They had been misidentified by officers and it has taken them up to two years to clear their names.
A succession of ministers have depicted these people as a small group of troublemakers, not genuine refugees determined to change the outcome of their cases. This could not be further from the truth.
When I first started visiting asylum seekers in Villawood Detention Centre, I was first introduced to a young chap called Ismail. I was surprised by his articulate nature, and how normal he was. That’s why I kept going back. The reality is that these are just normal people, going about their lives, except that their lives play out within the confines of the Serco managed facility.
Ismail was eventually set free, released into the community after 37 months in detention. But it was not in the usual way. He was never granted asylum, instead he was married to an Australian wife.
These people have every right to seek Australia’s protection, enshrined under international law in the Refugee Convention of 1951.
Stephen Blanks, the Secretary of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties has been involved in asylum seeker advocacy since 2003, when Frances Milne from Balmain for Refugees rang to ask him if he would be interested in taking on asylum seeker cases.
I asked him what he thought of the trial and the tough sentences being handed down. He said:
“If he (the judge) has failed to take into account the breaches of Australians obligations to these people both in relation to the providing of protection and the conditions of their detention then I think that is unsatisfactory”.
By conditions of detentions, he means that the judge failed to take into account the period of time the asylum seekers spent in immigration detention awaiting the finalisation of their criminal charges — about two years.
“Custodial sentence serves no purpose other than to punish the offender,” he added. “It won’t act as a deterrent because when people are trying to draw attention to injustice then they won’t be deterred by sentences of this kind because the injustice they have suffered is greater than any punishment they could receive”
He said that the consequences of the event were of such that, no one could have intended.
“It’s the kind of criminal prosecution that even if totally correct within the law, tends to bring the law into disrepute, because although it achieves conviction in accordance with the law, it ignores completely the true justice of the situation”, Blanks said.
In a press release issued on 29 April 2011 the former Minister Chris Bowen proposed a toughening of the character test where by anyone convicted of a criminal offence in immigration detention would fail the character test.
The Minister for Immigration promised to exert his special powers as fully as possible to prevent these people from applying for permanent protection visas.
For Haidari, another year in jail, in addition to the three-and-a-half years he has already spent in immigration detention, is devastating. He faces imminent deportation on his release. At least I know that in one sense, he is safe, so I am somewhat relieved.
As for my friend, he now wants to go to a third country. When I went to visit him in prison he seemed less concerned with his present surroundings but said to me “I’m more worried about what is next”. The thought of serving another year in Villawood Detention Centre is unbearable to him.
Australia keeps asylum seekers locked up for years in contravention of natural justice and our international obligations. Our government then punishes those who dare to resist.