By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) - Screening of secretly filmed shocking footage of abuse of juvenile prisoners in a remote northern Australian prison by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC), renowned investigative reporting program ‘Four Corners’, has outraged thousands of Australians who took to the streets to protest and forced the government to act.
The video material filmed between 2010 and 2014 at the Don Dale youth detention centre in the Northern Territory in Australia and screened on July 25 has drawn comparisons to the treatment of prisoners in the notorious prisons run by the U.S. government in Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.
The grim images show officers grabbing the neck of a boy named Dylan Voller and throwing him to the ground. He is then subsequently stripped naked. Another video shows Voller being teargassed by correctional officers, who just seconds before can be heard saying they wanted to “pulverize” him.
It has also drawn the attention of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which said it is shocked by the video footage showing children as young as 10 years old – many of whom are Aboriginal children – being held in inhumane conditions and treated cruelly.
“The treatment these children have been subjected to could amount to a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, to which Australia is a party,” noted Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) at a news briefing in Geneva.
Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – which Australia ratified in December 1990 – stipulates that “every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age”.
In recent years, Australia has come under the microscope of the UN human rights office for the detention of children who arrive in Australia’s shores seeking political asylum. Currently there are over 100 such children held in detention camps in Australia and the Pacific Island of Nauru.
The fact that almost all the children involved in the ‘Four Corners’ revelation are of Aboriginal descent and coming exactly 25 years after the publication of the Royal Commission Report into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, has raised some disturbing questions about the treatment of Aborigines, especially in northern Australia by the law enforcement authorities.
Many protestors on the weekend claimed that the juvenile detention system is racist because most of the Aboriginal children held in custody are there for petty crimes such as stealing and inability to pay fines. Very few White or non-Aboriginal children are jailed for such offences in Australia.
Despite making up just 3 percent of the country's total population, 27 percent of Australia’s prison population is made up of Aborigines. The figure for the Northern Territory is even more alarming, with 94 percent of juvenile inmates being Aborigines.
After consultations with Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs, Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and Attorney-General George Brandis, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on July 26 he was “shocked and appalled” by the revelations and that he would appointing a Royal Commission to inquiry into juvenile detention in Australia.
"We want to know how this came about, we want to know what lessons can be learnt from it,” Turnbull said after the announcement. While human rights organisations have welcomed the announcement, Pat Dodson, opposition Labour Party Senator and a former commissioner on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 25 years ago, questioned the Northern Territory government’s claim of ignorance of what was happening rights under their own nose.
"These kids have been subject to this torture and this treatment since 2010 basically and some of them repeatedly,” noted Dodson in an interview with Sydney Morning Herald (SMH). "If you're gonna talk tough on crime, if you're gonna beat up kids, then you want to know what the people you've endorsed to do the bullying are actually conducting.”
Professor Triggs, while welcoming the prime minister’s decision, told SMH that a problematic "culture of detention" had emerged in Australia that simply "warehouses" everyone from asylum seekers and mentally disabled people to sex offenders and terrorists.
"It's 25 years since we had the royal commission into deaths in custody. We're still having deaths in custody and the Northern Territory in particular has embarked on this principle of so- called paperless arrest laws," she said.
The scheme introduced in December 2014 permits people to be jailed for up to four hours – and longer if drunk – if police suspect they have committed a summary offence, including making undue noise or failing to keep a front yard clean.
It is the ease at which young Aborigines in particular that could be arrested and detained by the Police that prompted the 1991 Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission investigation, which recommended among others, laws to prevent arrest for public drunkenness and the principle of custody as a last resort. These have not been implemented because of lack of cooperation between law reform commissions at state and federal levels.
About 340 Indigenous people have died in prisons and police cells since the 1991 royal commission report. In an address to the National Press Club in April to mark the 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission Report, Dodson said the number of Aboriginal people in jail was now double that in 1991 – thanks, he added, to a culture “that permits the criminal justice system to continue to suck us up like a vacuum cleaner and deposit us like waste in custodial institutions”.
Thus, there are much misgivings whether another Royal Commission spending millions of dollars would be able to fix a system and a culture as described by Dodson.
Speaking on the ‘Four Corners’ program, National Children's Commissioner Megan Mitchell who has inspected the Don Dale prison said, “I just cannot imagine that anybody would treat other human beings like that and particularly children and they are in the care of the state who is being a proxy parent.”
Barrister John B. Lawrence who represented one of the juvenile detainees noted in the ‘Four Corners’ program: “If I treated my children like that, the authorities would take my children from me quite properly so (under the law) because I would be behaving cruelly to them . . . we're talking about kids that are being shackled with handcuffs on their ankles, their wrists, their waist areas. They're being shackled to chairs a la Guantanamo Bay. This is actually happening in Australia in 2016.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 August 2016]
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
Photo: A portrayal entitled The Taking of the Children on the 1999 Great Australian Clock, Queen Victoria Building, Sydney, by artist Chris Cook. Credit: Wikimedia Commons