This article appeared in the Australian 12 October 2002 p1
A deadly shock
to our system
IN Syria, Palestinian refugee Mohammed Saleh was imprisoned, beaten and tortured with electric shocks.
He fled to what he thought was freedom: to Australia, where he was isolated in a darkened cell, given electric shock treatment and died - mentally and physically broken - after surgery for a tumour that had long been left untreated.
His story came to light only because of an inquest into his death - Australia's first coronial inquiry into the death of an asylum-seeker in mandatory detention.
West Australian Coroner Alastair Hope found in August that Saleh's death resulted from "rare complications" following the surgery. What remains unclear to this day is why he was placed in the isolation block - when Department of Immigration officials have said he was no troublemaker.
What is known is that Saleh was locked in Juliet Block - a punishment block at the Port Hedland detention centre - and left there for 13 days, sinking deeper and deeper into depression.
"When he came out ... he was a shattered man," said fellow detainee Mo'een Dabour.
"I was shocked when I saw him," said Saleh's friend, Yasser Al-Asadi, another Palestinian refugee from Syria in Port Hedland at the time.
Two months after he was released from isolation in February last year, Saleh's condition had so deteriorated that Australasian Correctional Management had him admitted to Hollywood Private Hospital in Perth and treated with electric-convulsive therapy, a last resort in the treatment of severe depression. Psychiatrist Brendan Jansen said doctors had waited to use shock treatment because of the "history" of torture by electric shock Saleh had suffered in Syria.
Within two months he was dead, dying in the hospital on June 23, a week short of his 42nd birthday.
The file covering the 13 days Saleh was in Juliet Block is missing. The department has claimed that the files were "destroyed" in a riot. The Continued - Page 2 From Page 1 single sheet of paper about it that the department produced says: "No case notes on this file due to riot at the centre. All case notes were destroyed. Port Hedland." There is no date and no signature.
Eleven men detained with Saleh gave statements describing his marked physical and mental decline after his time in the cells. Nine were deported before the inquest.
"In the circumstances," said Mr Hope, "it seems remarkable that DIMIA (Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs) has not been able to locate a single document relating to the deceased's placement in Juliet Block."
But there are many witnesses, by no means all of them detainees subsequently hustled out of Australia. On January 30 last year, while Saleh was still locked up, six members of a parliamentary subcommittee visited the centre.
When they heard from detainees about the men put into isolation in Juliet Block, three MPs, Labor's Roger Price and Colin Hollis, and independent senator Brian Harradine, went to look for themselves. "Even when we went to Juliet the ACM officials were denying everything. It is only when we went upstairs that we discovered people were incarcerated there," says Price.
He believes the accommodation they saw that day in Juliet Block would break every building code in the country. The cells were dark. Detainees were locked up 23 out of 24 hours a day. There was a "disgusting" ablutions block the men were allowed to use only one at a time (so that some claimed that they were forced to defecate in their cells).
At a hearing in parliament about a week later, Hollis asked a senior Immigration official if this was the sort of accommodation, with broken toilets and "a hole in the wall" for a shower, for which the Government was charging detainees $60 a day (the charge levied against unsuccessful applicants for refugee status).
There were "disturbances" at Port Hedland in January last year, according to ACM. But there is nothing to suggest Saleh was involved. Greg Kelly, director of detention operations for the department, assured Asem Judeh, who had befriended Saleh: "Mr Saleh presented no behavioural management difficulties while in immigration detention."
"But if he had not died, nothing of what happened to him in Juliet Block would be on the record," says Charendev Singh, the human rights advocacy worker from Brimbank Community Legal Centre in Melbourne, who devoted himself to bringing the case to light.
Approached by Judeh, Singh contacted the Public Interest Law Clearing House and found Minter Ellison solicitor Elizabeth Lacey and barrister John Cameron. All worked pro bono, funding other costs from donations.
Not long before he died, Saleh had tried to put his story down on paper for Judeh. "In Port Hedland, I faced individual confinement where it would be hard even for an animal to sleep in that made me crazy ... and caused me a mental state from which I haven't recovered yet ... Wondering where I am and where is my family with no money."
Saleh's wife and three children are still living in poverty in the Al Yarmouk refugee camp, where he Saleh born.
When his primary claim for asylum was rejected, about a week before he was confined in Juliet Block, Saleh grew despondent.
He was turned down on the grounds that stateless Palestinians from refugee camps in Syria supposedly come under the care and protection of the UN Works and Relief Agency. The agency hadn't managed to prevent him being imprisoned and tortured as a member of a banned political organisation, however.
Saleh, who had arrived by boat on Christmas Island in October 2000, appeared before the Refugee Review Tribunal about a month after he got out of Juliet. Racked with guilt at leaving his family behind, he was descending into what soon would be diagnosed as a psychotic state.
But Luke Hardy, the Refugee Review Tribunal member who cross-examined Saleh, rejected his appeal, writing: "The tribunal doesn't accept that the applicant faces ongoing scrutiny, let alone the chance of persecution arising from the actual or suspected political affiliations of ... his late father." Saleh's father had been murdered for his political activities, as the West Australian Coroner observed.
Saleh himself was in such a desperate state that he did little but lie on his mattress "crying and despairing", said Al-Asadi. He ate almost nothing and was so weak he had to be half-carried to the detention centre's medical clinic. He sought medical attention 22 times in the seven weeks after he was released from J Block.
In July 2001, five weeks after Saleh's death, an Immigration Department official wrote to one of the department's lawyers "re Mohammed Saleh".
"It's likely we have not heard the end of this man's story, as there is a Palestinian organisation very actively pursuing issues relating to his death. Also HREOC (the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) have now written to us asking heaps of questions about him, his applications before the department, his treatment at the Port Hedland IRPC, his illnesses and treatment thereof, circumstances of his death and results of the coroner's enquiry. Don't be surprised if litigation hears more and is possibly involved at some later stage."
Nine months later (after a sheaf of correspondence about it from Singh and Judeh), the department claimed the documents were missing.
This week, a spokesman for the department told The Weekend Australian: "I'm aware of allegations that DIMIA did not make available all documents relating to a detainee who was the subject of a coronial inquest. DIMIA provided all available documents to the coroner. One file relating to the detainee was unable to be located."
It seems that this critical file could not be found in at least three places - ACM offices in Port Hedland, and the department's offices in Perth and Canberra.
Singh said: "They've either shredded the files, or ACM and DIMIA were running the place without any accountability and any reporting. If that's the case, that's a breach of the contract between them."
"At a parliamentary subcommittee hearing only eight weeks ago," said Price, "Phillipa Godwin, the first assistant secretary, denied J Block had ever been used for punishment."