Assault charges arising from an incident at Darwin’s Northern Immigration Detention Centre again have highlighted the detrimental consequences of significant delays in the processing of security clearances for refugees within Australia’s immigration system.

In a blow to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Northern Territory Magistrate’s Court, on Monday, imposed bail conditions preventing three Burmese refugees from being moved from Darwin until the conclusion of their trials.

The men, all found by the Australian government to be refugees yet remaining in detention as they await the outcome of their security clearances, have been in detention for 21 and 23 months.

John Lawrence, the defence lawyer for one of the men, Habib Habiburahman, said he had asked the magistrate to impose the bail condition as previously the department had moved protesting detainees  “at the drop of a hat” to more isolated facilities away from public scrutiny.

The decision follows the forcible removal of a group of Afghan Hazara asylum seekers to Christmas Island earlier this month after they had staged a rooftop protest at NIDC .  The men are being kept isolated in the facility’s high security Red Block for violent and mentally unstable detainees are kept under 24-hour supervision.

Last September, 89 Afghan asylum seekers were flown from Darwin to the Curtain detention facility, in remote north-west Western Australia, after they had staged a peaceful sit-down protest by a Darwin roadside following a breakout at NIDC.

Kon Karapanagiotidis, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said the removal of protesting detainees to more isolated facilities was a “standard practice” of the department.

“Any time people act out they’re removed so the government can cover itself rather than address the failures to its human rights obligations,” he said.  “The government approach seems to be to want to teach people a lesson.”

Friday’s incident occurred after Habiburahman returned to his cell at NIDC after ending a peaceful rooftop protest.  Several Serco staff entered the room and the subsequent altercation ensued.  Habiburahman and his co-accused, Abdul Basir and Harood Rasheed, spent the weekend at the Darwin police station’s watchhouse before being bailed on Monday.

A Serco staff member, Daniel Green, is said to have suffered lacerations to his ear and bruising and bite marks to his chest.

At Monday’s court appearance, Magistrate Daynor Trigg commented on Habiburahman’s visible injuries, which included bruising and a seemingly disabled right arm.

“He told us these injuries were sustained in the struggle with Serco staff,” Mr Lawrence told Crikey.  “He will be pleading not guilty to all charges.”

Lawrence described the situation of the accused as a “disgraceful state of affairs” and echoed concerns voiced by Trigg about the length of time the men had been in detention.  “It’s untenable and unacceptable.  These men have had their frustrations compounded by the continual deferrals from the government on when their cases will be finalised.  I believe they have a legitimate right to protest and demonstrate against these injustices.”

According to Karapanagiotidis, such incidents are “an inevitable consequence of a failing system based on punishment and deterrence” in which 719 refugees remain in detention due to delays in their security clearances.

Habiburahman, a member of the Rohingya ethnic minority persecuted by Burma’s military government, has a history of activism while in detention.  This has included several rooftop protests, letter writing campaigns and hunger strikes.  Earlier this year he told Crikey he would continue his peaceful protests.

“I don’t want to attempt suicide or cut myself,” he said.  “My way is different. I don’t want to be a victim and I will struggle to reveal the reality of our lives.  For me that is more important now than the visa.”

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship was contacted for comment on its policy towards the removal of detainees involved in protests but refused to comment.

Habiburahman will face court again on September 27.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey