A Hanging In Detention


This week I spoke with a 40-year-old Sri Lankan father of two who came to Australia in search of freedom from terror for himself and his family. Instead he is being terrorised by the very people he asked for help.

Only a few hours earlier he had attempted suicide in the Broadmeadows detention centre in outer Melbourne. He was found hanging from a rope outside his room when the guards cut him down. He was unconscious and on the verge of achieving his sad objective.

His voice was mostly muted. Brooding silences were occasionally broken by bursts of babbling anger and frustration. He wanted me to hear his story, to understand his plight and his anguish after being incarcerated for three and a half years without knowing why, or if he will ever be released.

He came to Australia in March, 2010 and was immediately accepted as a refugee. He had spent three years, from 2006, in a Sri Lankan military jail. He was accused of links to the Tamil Tigers. He says he was not a Tamil Tiger. He has a court release document from Sri Lanka, confirming he was not part of the Tigers. However, being Tamil was proof enough for the army.

He fled to Australia by boat and our government acknowledged his need for protection. Then ASIO stepped in, and suddenly declared he was a risk to our national security.

All he was told was that they believed he had worked for the Tigers’ intelligence wing. He denies it, and has shown them his court release document. The government looked the other way. He worked for a foreign de-mining company, he says. He asked ASIO for their evidence and the chance to prove them wrong. They said no. It’s a secret.

Australia, he thought, was a democracy, a free country that held up its legal system as sacred. The right to know why you are being held in jail, the right to be heard, the right to natural justice. He thought these things were an integral part of this society. This is not Sri Lanka, they must treat me fairly, he said to himself. The UN has demanded the Australian government release him and the other 40 or so locked up for the same reason. The government ignores the UN and breaks international law. 

If he were an Australian citizen with an adverse ASIO assessment he would not be locked up indefinitely. He would be able to be able to see why he’s been judged as a security risk. He could challenge his assessment in a court of law. But he is a refugee. So they lock him up, throw away the key, and tell him nothing.

ASIO says it uses predictive judgements to lock him up. It sounds the same as guesswork to him. If you jailed people on that basis you would need more prisons than schools. One of those predictions is, apparently, that he might still support the Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers no longer exist. They were obliterated in 2009. How can you be jailed for life for supporting an organisation that no longer exists, and never threatened Australia? 

He applied for a protection visa at the Swiss embassy when he was released from prison in Sri Lanka. He heard nothing. He had to flee quickly because of intimidation and threats. He gathered all his worldly goods and those of a few friends and sold them in exchange for passage on a boat and a life without terror. His wife and two children remained behind, hoping to join him. After he left they were granted protection by the Swiss government. His wife and 12-year-old son now live in Switzerland. His adult daughter lives in India.

Last Monday at 12.30pm he met with Immigration Department officials at the detention centre. He pleaded his case. He asked that if they won’t let him live here then let him go to Switzerland with his wife and child. They shrugged their shoulders and said they could do nothing. He told them he couldn’t cope any more. He was losing his mind. They got up and left an hour later.

He went immediately back to his room and picked up a rope he had hidden away. He went to a nearby area he had surveyed earlier. It had a cross-beam sturdy enough to do what he needed to do.

When they cut him down, they tried to force him to take medication. He refused. He said he wants to die. It is the only way out. After years of daily persecution and terror in Sri Lanka, he came to a country he thought was rich, not so much with money but kindness. Now he knows he was wrong.

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