Australia's New Political Prisoners


If your ancestors were transported from Dorset as convicts in 1834, they may well have been one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who were sentenced for establishing what could be considered to be the first trade union in England. 

Or, if they were transported from Monmouthshire to Van Dieman’s land in 1842, they may have been one of the Chartists who were sentenced because of their dangerous and revolutionary political beliefs: lobbying for parliament to meet each year, for all people to vote by ballot and for members of parliament to be paid.

Australia has a curious history of housing people imprisoned because of their alleged political beliefs. 

Irish rebels who were agitating for political separation from Britain from 1798 to 1867 were also sentenced to life in the new colony.  Some of them, including Canadian, Yorkshire and Scots rebels, had histories of using violence in support of their causes and social and political protests.

Political prisoners are punished for their intellectual rebellion against authorities rather than the acts of violence they may have committed. People who exercise terrorism, armed resistance or guerrilla warfare to support their political dissent are not generally prisoners of conscience.

So what do we call people – specifically Tamil refugees – who are imprisoned in Australia today, not for violent crimes, but on the basis that their past is consistent with them having an alleged “commitment to the LTTE’s goals and its methods”? 

Over many decades, the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) certainly used violence to pursue their cause of political separatism from the Singhalese Sri Lankan rule. 

However, one refugee, Sasikanthan Shanmugarayah, who recently received an unsigned report written by Margaret Stone about the reasons for his adverse security assessment by ASIO and his ongoing detention in Australia, has not been tried for any past crimes, nor is he alleged to have committed any specific crimes. 

Instead, he has been told that is imprisoned because he “has the training to be useful to the LTTE in the future” and that ASIO believes that he has political sympathies to the LTTE.

Sasikanthan Shanmugarayah has repeatedly explained that he has no political sympathies. ASIO did not interview him prior to making their initial assessment and has based their view on an unsigned UNHCR report.

It has been alleged by ASIO and accepted by Independent Reviewer, Margaret Stone, that he has “extensive weapons training for purposes of politically motivated violence” and that it is likely refugees are a direct or indirect risk to security in Australia.

Sasikanthan disputes the facts relied on by ASIO and Stone.  Moreover, their reasons veer perilously close to political imprisonment.

Last month, Minister Chandrasiri Gajadeera, in Sri Lanka, said that “810 former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) members are in remand custody in Sri Lanka and they are not political prisoners but hardcore LTTE cadres who ordered the killings and other heinous terrorist activities.”

"Punishing persons who have committed crimes is not a human rights violation," the Minister argued.  But detaining people in Australia, who have not been convicted of crimes, on the basis that they might “be useful to the LTTE in the future” is.

Margaret Stone has argued that “An unclassified copy may not make it obvious that [all aspects of the refugee’s ASIO assessment had been examined].  However, you may be assured that all issues have been addressed,'' suggesting that there was other evidence secreted away by ASIO to justify an adverse security assessment and thus imprisonment.

Redactions in the written report may explain the reasons for his ongoing detention, but it is exceedingly difficult to contemplate what additional information might justify ongoing detention in Australia without trial.

If refugees have committed crimes, they ought to be tried accordingly; if the crimes are sufficiently grievous, they would not qualify as refugees; and if they are being detained because they might “be useful to the LTTE in the future,” they are Australia’s contemporary political prisoners.

Sasikanthan's report acknowledges that “what is missing from the initial assessment is evidence about his attitude towards the LTTE and its methods.”

On the basis of the official unclassified reasons put forward for Sasikanthan’s ongoing detention, and the beliefs he is alleged to hold, he is a "political prisoner".  Without evidence that he even holds these beliefs, he is a wrongly detained refugee.

Note: A representative of the Independent Reviewer has advised Sasikanthan and his lawyer that a copy of the written reasons for the adverse security assessment have been supplied to a media outlet.

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