The Truth About Reza Barati Must Be Told

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When will we know the truth about the death of Reza Berati? The Iranian asylum seeker was killed while under Australia’s care following an attack on asylum seekers at Australia’s offshore detention centre at Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea, on 17 February.

We still don’t know exactly what happened. No-one has been charged. Several investigations are ongoing, but these too have been dogged by controversy. So many questions remain.

For instance, why is G4S, the global security firm responsible for the Manus Island detention centre at the time of the violence, reportedly refusing to cooperate with the Papua New Guinea police investigation?

Why was barrister Jay Williams deported? Williams was appointed by a PNG judge, Justice David Cannings, to interview witnesses.

Why did the PNG government of Peter O’Neill move to quash the human rights investigation initiated by Cannings in the PNG Supreme Court?

Why are asylum seekers still being held in manifestly inadequate facilities, in the now-ruined detention centre at Manus Island? In March, ABC correspondent Liam Fox was allowed to see the compound, in a supervised visit with Cannings. He described it as “one of the more confronting things I’ve seen as a journalist”.

Fox told ABC listeners of filthy toilets and shower blocks, shattered windows, bullet holes in dormitories, over-crowding, desperate asylum seekers calling out "Freedom! Freedom!" He described a notice on the wall of the compound which required security guards to carry a Hoffman knife. “We were told it was used to cut down people who tried to hang themselves,” he said.

Perhaps the most salient question of all is this: is the Abbott government covertly encouraging the PNG government of Peter O’Neill to shut down human rights investigations about Manus Island?

According to Fairfax’s Michael Gordon, the answer is yes. Gordon claims that PNG’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Rimbink Pato, confirmed that the human rights investigation by Cannings was shut down after consultation with Australia.

Pato told Gordon that, "It's a joint effort. We're the best judges in terms of what's happening on the ground, but we're in concert because this is a partnership. We're together."

According to Gordon's story, "Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop shared his concern that the inquiry carried dangers and should be challenged."

"They were concerned as well that we should do something like this. It's a joint thing," Pato told Fairfax.

The Abbott government appears to support the cover-up. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is not exactly a shining light of transparency when it comes to matters related to his portfolio. When asked about the move to quash the human rights inquiry, he told journalists that “we support the actions they consider are necessary to take, upon their own initiative, within their own sovereign jurisdiction and consistent with their own constitution.”

Pato later confirmed he consulted with Scott Morrison on the issue, in an interview with the ABC’s Emma Alberici.

For anyone still of the belief that the Australian government was doing everything it could to get to the bottom of Berati’s violent killing, recent news has not been encouraging.

Today, the Australian Federal Police announced that they would not be assisting PNG police with the Berati investigation. The Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary had requested an independent observer to sit in on witness interviews.

“The AFP does not have any personnel deployed to Manus or operational jurisdiction in PNG, therefore the AFP suggested the RPNGC look at alternative options,” the AFP told New Matilda today, in a statement.

“The AFP advised RPNGC that more appropriate options for an independent observer would be the contracted social welfare provider, International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) or diplomatic consular assistance.”

“Further to this, as the AFP undertakes an advisory role to the RPNGC, it was not considered appropriate to act as an independent observer in a witness interview.”

New Matilda understands that the RPNGC request was not a direct request for assistance in the criminal investigation.

Even so, the AFP’s reluctance to assist the PNG police in the investigation is in marked contrast with the muscular presence of Australian police throughout the Pacific region. Australian police are a feature of our diplomatic efforts throughout the region. For example, the AFP also plays a central role in assisting the Solomon Islands’ police force, under the RAMSI agreement for regional assistance.

The AFP is also heavily involved in PNG. Under Phase 4 of the “PNG-AFP Policing Agreement”, signed last November, Australia has deployed 50 AFP officers to PNG to provide “advice, guidance and assistance.” According to a media release issued by AFP Commissioner Tony Negus last year, the cooperation extends to “criminal investigations”.

The Minister responsible for the Australian Federal Police is Justice Minister Michael Keenan. A staffer in Keenan’s office directed New Matilda to the Australian Federal Police.

Labor’s shadow Justice spokesperson, David Feeney, told New Matilda that “it seems to be an unusual decision and I don’t comprehend why it has been made”.

“Obviously the objective of the Parliament and the stated goal of the Opposition is that there should be an exhaustive and independent inquiry,” Feeney continued.

“What transpired at Manus needs to be well understood, there needs to be lessons learned, and if a murder has been committed there needs to be investigation and justice.”

“And for that to be realised there needs to cooperation between PNG and Australia at every level.”

The Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young is also concerned. She plans to write to Keenan to urge him to assist the PNG authorities in the investigation. “This is the latest in a long line of moves from the Abbott Government that point to a coordinated cover-up,” Hanson-Young said in a statement.

“The Government is playing a risky game in its attempts to avoid scrutiny, hiding the truth about what happened to Reza Barati in the hope that the public will forget about it.”

While Labor and the Greens continue to pressure the government on the issue, six weeks after Berati’s death the Australian public does seem to be forgetting about it. With discussion focussed on knights and dames and the Racial Discrimination Act, the events of the night of 17 February continue to fade from the public consciousness.

The Australian public’s best chance of finding out what really happened that night on Manus Island appear to lie with Justice Cannings. If that is so, then we should be very worried indeed. Cannings is currently the subject of a Supreme Court action in Port Moresby, in an effort to remove him from the human rights investigation.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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