This article appeared in the Australian 30 March 2001 p25

Welcome to the Hell Hotel

With more illegal refugees arriving on our shores, Elisabeth Wynhausen investigates another Australian detention centre mired in allegations of abuse

THE people who run the Curtin detention centre call it the Hotel. It is a special punishment area, where some detainees were locked up in solitary confinement, 22 out of 24 hours a day. The reason for this severe punishment? They had spoken out. They were hauled off to the Hotel - or to the police lockup in the town of Derby, 37km away, for daring to open their mouths, even among themselves.

Although it has not been in the news as much as Woomera or Port Hedland, what went on at Curtin led at least two officials to voice grave concerns about the immigration detention centre in the remote north-west of Western Australia.

The then human rights commissioner Chris Sidoti and Dr Mary Crock, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Sydney, who visited Curtin last winter, were brutal in their assessment. The refugees they interviewed made allegations about beatings by guards and inappropriate and prolonged use of solitary confinement, says Crock: "In our view, aspects of the centre resembled a concentration camp."

In a report published last month, the Commonwealth Ombudsman's office suggested refugees in detention centres have fewer rights than criminals: "Unlike criminals who have been extended the full protection of the law before being incarcerated ... immigration detainees appear to have lesser rights."

Prisoners get beds to sleep in. In stage one of Villawood detention centre in Sydney, the Ombudsman found mattresses laid side by side. Indeed, 40 more people are about to be wedged into the same primitive facilities.

Prisoners may make phone calls. Detainees at Curtin had to wait about six months before phones were installed. When Greg Wallis, the Department of Immigration manager at Curtin, was asked about it in a court case last year, he blamed the missing phones on Telstra.

Curtin is a former air force base in the red-dirt country of the Kimberley region, hidden from all but the most determined official visitors. Its punishment regime last year reminded one former detainee, a doctor from Iraq, now resident in Perth, of the homeland he fled.

"When we were talking, someone would say: `I think we have to do another hunger strike.' Three or four days later this person would be taken to Derby lockup. It was just like the policy of our regime in Iraq - they used to lock people up on the word of an informer."

Naturally no one was charged with saying the wrong thing. There wasn't a charge sheet, in fact. Behind the walls of the Curtin detention centre, people were incarcerated without charges, on the strength of rumours passed on by informants possibly facing deportation.

"One year ago they put about 10 people in Derby in the prison," says Dr Hamoudi Aldyni, another former detainee. "Some of them were vocal about the situation in the camp. They didn't do anything. They were just complaining."

An investigation by The Australian has revealed that in the closed, Kafka-esque world of Curtin, outspoken people were labelled and punished with up to two weeks behind bars. Even juveniles were imprisoned.

In November 1999, the month he and his family were dispatched to Curtin, one man, an Iraqi father of six, was locked up in the Derby watch-house with his son Mohamed, a boy of 15. For two weeks, they shared a cell (and its filthy toilet) with eight other men.

What was their crime? They had staged a small protest in Curtin after the cigarette ration of three a day was cut out. They weren't charged.

The Department of Immigration does not deny the boy spent two weeks in a police lockup. A statement said: "A 15-year-old was transferred to the Derby watch-house in the company of his father and under the supervision of ACM [Australian Correctional Management] staff because they had been involved in an incident at the centre."

Imagine the outcry if a 15-year-old Australian citizen were thrown into jail without charges because he had been involved in an unspecified incident.

But Mohamed isn't a citizen. He lived behind the wire of an internment camp on the edge of the desert. A private company, Australian Correctional Management operates the detention centres for the Government. However, accounts of life in Curtin suggest that Wallis gave orders about day-to-day operations.

"Detainees were locked up in the Hotel at his whim," says Laurie Levy, a Perth barrister who cross-examined Wallis during the trial of a detainee charged after a mass break-out from Curtin last June.

Under cross-examination, Wallis agreed that detainees were removed to Derby lockup without charge. Over the months, he said in court, dozens had been locked up like that.

The defendant was acquitted of charges of inciting escape. But some of the detainees called to give evidence against him were themselves in desperate straits.

"They had been rejected [for temporary protection visas] or even exhausted their avenues of appeal," says Levy. "It seemed an extraordinary coincidence."

Indeed the magistrate, Antoine Bloemen, commented that the witnesses may have imagined "that if they co-operated and ... they gave good evidence then that may benefit them".

"They believe Wallis is more powerful even than the Minister for Immigration," says another observer, immigration agent Dr Mohamed Al Jabiri, a former Iraqi diplomat, who represents some of the refugees.

They told him that on the day Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, visited Curtin last autumn, "detainees who spoke some English were put in the Hotel".

When The Australian asked the Department of Immigration why people were placed in the Hotel, the official response seemed to spring from George Orwell's 1984. "Detainees at risk to themselves, or others, are housed, usually for short periods, in observation rooms. This is not punishment. It is a management tool."

But former detainees with nothing to gain by speaking out have described a system of detention surreal in its arbitrary punitiveness, like something that happens in a crumbling Third World prison.

It was as if Curtin were a law unto itself. Inside the wire, detainees who first refused to follow a guard's orders, for instance, to move from one hut (donga) to another were bashed (or put in the Hotel).

The Iraqi doctor resident in Western Australia recalls that guards who bashed a man one day came back the next day with a bouquet of roses for him.

Finally, on June 9 last year, about 350 men, women and children walked out. They wanted the media to focus on conditions in the camp (as had happened after a walkout that week from the Woomera detention centre).

But 5km from Curtin, ACM guards and state police were waiting for the long, straggling procession behind a wire barrier they had erected across the road.

Some detainees have alleged they were beaten by officers from the centre. A Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs spokesman told The Australian: "Police were required to use batons when a group of detainees attempted to force their way through a police roadblock."

Remarkably, this side of the story is not shown on the two-hour video of the break-out made by detention centre staff. "What you see on the film is [ACM] officers with shields and batons beating the detainees ... then you see detainees with blood streaming down their faces," says Levy.

Ten men were marched off to the lockup at Derby and from there hundreds of kilometres away to Roeburn prison. Others were locked up in the Hotel, in huts about 3m by 3m. The windows had been boarded up and stayed like that for the next few weeks. In short, the men incarcerated after the break-out spent 21 or 22 hours a day in a sort of large, dark box.

But the sequel was as arbitrary as other aspects of Curtin life. Though about 350 people had walked out of the place, only 27 were charged over the break-out - and the 27 included a number of men who had been incarcerated more than once for speaking out.

An Iraqi released last December says the situation is much better than it was. But it is still detention, with an indeterminate sentence. He said two of his friends, who have been in Curtin more than a year, told him they went to see Wallis to ask if they could be sent back to Iraq. "Mr Wallis said: `We can't - they will hang you."' Passing the buck WHAT the Department of Immigration manager at any detention centre does is monitor the performance of Australian Correctional Management, the corporation that operates the centres for the department.

Because the contracts are cloaked in commercial confidentiality, only the department and the company know if there are penalty clauses relating to suicides and attempted suicides.

In a case before Broome Court last July, Greg Wallis, the Department of Immigration manager at Curtin detention centre, was cross-examined by barrister Laurie Levy.

The barrister was defending a detainee charged after a mass break-out from Curtin on June 9 last year. Part of the cross-examination follows.

Levy: "How many detainees have attempted suicide?"

Wallis: "I'm not aware of any that have attempted suicide."

Levy: "You weren't aware for example, that on the 8th of June, there were three separate suicide attempts, two by swallowing bleach and one, by, I think ... attempting to hang himself."

Wallis: "If you want this information, we can get it and we can get the records."

Levy: "Mr Wallis, you're the man in charge of the camp?"

Wallis: "Yes, but you're asking me for information now that I don't have access to records about."

Levy: "Aren't you the man who is ultimately responsible for the running of the camp?"

Wallis: "I'm responsible for ensuring that ACM comply with their contractual obligations. They are responsible for the running of the camp."

Levy: "Well, who would be responsible or would have to answer questions if a detainee committed suicide?"

Wallis: "Australian Correctional Management would."