By Australian Broadcasting Cooperation –
Three Sri Lankan men who have been declared genuine refugees are fighting secret ASIO rulings preventing their release into the general community.
STEVE CANNANE, PRESENTER: Three Sri Lankan men who’ve been declared genuine refugees are fighting secret ASIO rulings that mean they can’t be released from immigration detention despite their refugee status.
With no right to appeal, they’ve decided to speak out publically as part of their campaign, in exclusive and secretly recorded interviews with Lateline in which they’ve pleaded to be freed or killed.
The Tamils say they were never combatants in Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war.
The men are stuck in detention indefinitely unless a third country takes them, and one of Australia’s leading barristers believes the Federal Government’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council is a factor.
Kerry Brewster reports.
KERRY BREWSTER, REPORTER: They’ve swapped lives in a war zone for a different kind of hell in Australia. For more than three years, they’ve been locked up in Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre, and because of adverse ASIO assessments, 26-year-old Bonus, 30-year-old Prem and his younger brother Kokil could be there for the rest of their lives.
KOKIL, SRI LANKAN REFUGEE (voiceover translation): We’re like the living dead. It is life in hell. If I was an inmate awaiting capital punishment, I’d know what time and which place I’d be hanged. But I am an inmate who hasn’t even committed an offence.
KERRY BREWSTER: Kokil spoke secretly in this exclusive interview and he gave permission for Lateline to speak with his brain-damaged mentally ill brother, Prem.
PREM, SRI LANKAN REFUGEE (voiceover translation): There’s no evidence I’m a security risk. Without any evidence, they’ve locked me up by force. I am innocent.
BONUS, SRI LANKAN REFUGEE (voiceover translation): The pressure in Villawood is increasing and I’m suffering noise in my ears. I have nightmares in which many people talk to me incessantly. I don’t sleep. I’m taking medication. Sometimes I get up and scream, sometimes I break things.
PHILLIP BOULTEN, VICE PRESIDENT, NSW BAR ASSOCIATION: The Australian Government needs to take steps to redress this wrong.
KERRY BREWSTER: An expert in national security issues, the vice president of the New South Wales Bar Association, Phillip Boulten, says all normal legal rights have been thrown out the window.
PHILLIP BOULTEN: People can be locked up on the say-so of somebody behind closed doors and the person never told why and with no opportunity to give any effective challenge to it whatsoever.
KERRY BREWSTER: Officially recognised as refugees from the long, vicious war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger separatists, these men, ASIO says, are security risks. So here they stay indefinitely without the right to even hear what’s been said about them.
BONUS (voiceover translation): I don’t know why ASIO thinks I’m a security risk. I provided evidence that I was studying full time, evidence that showed I was studying A-Levels. How could I get involved in a war studying A-Levels?
KERRY BREWSTER: All three deny they were ever combatants.
Did you ever kill anyone?
KOKIL (voiceover translation): No, no, no. It was I who was mistreated. I didn’t hurt anyone.
BONUS (voiceover translation): I never got involved in any fighting.
KERRY BREWSTER: Kokil’s old college describes the former accountancy student as “hard-working” and of “good moral character”.
KOKIL (voiceover translation): I used to go around hiding. I’d be studying in school and there’d be sudden shell attacks. We’d get into a bunker and lie down. My friend died.
KERRY BREWSTER: Prem ran a bicycle shop. He says a severe beating by Sri Lankan soldiers in 2003 left him brain damaged.
PREM (voiceover translation): I was beaten up by the Army. They put six stitches in my head. I was held in a torture camp. For the next eight years, I took tablets. I described all this in the ASIO interview, but they didn’t believe me.
KERRY BREWSTER: Prem has recently launched legal action against the NSW Government for his involuntary psychiatric treatment in detention. The state’s Health Department acknowledges Prem’s complex and worsening mental illness yet he remains locked up, and according to his brother, not getting proper care.
KOKIL (voiceover translation): For about two years they didn’t give him any treatment in detention. He’s held in high security. He talks to himself. He urinates in his room. He’s like a six-year-old child.
KERRY BREWSTER: When ASIO prepared its assessments, relatives of the men were not even interviewed. Bonus’ sister lives in London. She’s a refugee and doesn’t want her face shown, fearing reprisals. She wiped away tears as she talked about her younger brother.
SISTER OF SRI LANKAN REFUGEE (voiceover translation): The reason he went to Australia is that when he was a student, if any bombs went off, the Army would round them up and beat them and make them sit for hours in the sun.
He speaks to me by phone and he’s so upset and sad he says, “Why am I alive? I’ll die here.”
PHILLIP BOULTEN: Until somebody is able to find out what the information that ASIO relies on truly is, you can only draw the conclusion that the information that’s leading to these adverse assessments is coming from the Sri Lankan government, who necessarily have been the military opponents of the people who are seeking asylum.
KERRY BREWSTER: High Commissioner Samarasinghe describes the Australia-Sri Lanka relationship as excellent. He confirms his government provides information to ASIO about individuals who’ve sought asylum in Australia.
THISARA SAMARASINGHE, SRI LANKAN HIGH COMMISSIONER: We have very good relations with Australian Government authorities and we have agencies co-operating each other regarding the intelligence. I am not able to give you specific reasons when they issue or make a judgment of a particular person.
They would have had good reasons to believe that he has certain connections and whether he’s a risk for such people to be given asylum. I will not go into detail. We share information.
But keeping the laws of the countries intact, privacy laws, and wherever possible we have shared. So what the Australian Government authorities or the intelligence authorities make a decision on a particular person is up to the Australian authorities.
KERRY BREWSTER: 50 of the 54 refugees detained indefinitely due to adverse ASIO security assessments are Sri Lankan Tamils. As well as the 50 adults, there are six Tamil children sharing indefinite detention with their parents.
PHILLIP BOULTEN: The government of Sri Lanka is very pro-active in setting its agenda in place wherever there is a Tamil diaspora throughout the world.
They wish to control what happens to Tamil people in Australia, in Canada, in France, in Britain, right throughout the world.
I also think that Australia has its mind and its eye on the possibility that keeping the Sri Lankan government on-side on this issue is likely to advance Australia’s interests in the region. And at the moment, Australia is very interested in taking for itself a seat on the United Nations Security Council and it needs every vote it can get in the General Assembly.
KERRY BREWSTER: For decades Australia took in Sri Lankan Tamils, nearly all strenuous supporters of the struggle for a Tamil homeland and supporters of the Tamil Tigers themselves. Now Australia’s policy towards recent arrivals is being questioned.
PHILLIP BOULTEN: Australia needs to do something to turn this policy around. If we continue down this track, 54 people will in 12 months’ time be 84 people and in three years’ time be 200 people. Because people will continue to come to Australia from Sri Lanka seeking asylum and will continue to be assessed by ASIO as threats to Sri Lanka and therefore threats to Australia.
In those circumstances, we really do need to come up with a positive solution to a growing problem which is a stain on our conscience.
BONUS (voiceover translation): I can’t live with this daily torture. It is better to die.
KERRY BREWSTER: Attorney-General Nicola Roxon hasn’t responded yet to a recommendation by a parliamentary committee that the Administrative Appeals Tribunal be allowed to review ASIO’s secret assessments.
In a separate case, the High Court is also considering whether it’s legal for the Government to lock up refugees indefinitely.
To listen the interview click here
Kerry Brewster, Lateline.