Abuse of young detainees alleged in Australia’s north
PM ‘shocked and appalled’ by video, announces investigation
SYDNEY — Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced an investigation Tuesday into the treatment of juvenile detainees in Australia’s far north, saying he was “shocked and appalled” by a news report that showed boys being stripped, sprayed with tear gas at close range and, in one case, shackled to a chair while forced to wear a hood.
The report, broadcast Monday night on “Four Corners,” a news program of the Australian Broadcasting Corp., documented abuses at a number of facilities in the Northern Territory, including the Don Dale children’s prison in the town of Berrimah, near the city of Darwin. That prison was closed in 2014, but previous inquiries into allegations of abuse there had not uncovered some of the details shown in the report, and some of the new video contradicted official accounts of past episodes.
“This is a shocking state of affairs,” Turnbull said in an interview on ABC radio Tuesday morning. “Like all Australians, I’ve been deeply shocked, shocked and appalled by the images of mistreatment of children at the Don Dale centre. We will be establishing a royal commission into these events.” A royal commission has the power to compel witnesses to give evidence.
The minister responsible for the Northern Territory’s juvenile justice system, John Elferink, was dismissed from that job Tuesday morning, though he continues to hold other government posts. The territory’s chief minister, Adam Giles, said at a news conference that “anybody who saw that footage on television last night on ‘Four Corners’ would undoubtedly describe it as horrific footage.”
According to the report, children as young as 10 were jailed at the Don Dale prison, and some as young as 13 were held for long periods in solitary confinement. Children were locked in small, high-security cells that had no running water and no natural light, the report said. Young boys were subjected to brutal and degrading treatment, including one who was stripped and another who was hurled across his cell by a prison guard.
The report included closed circuit television footage of two teenage boys scrambling and cowering under bedsheets and a mattress as tear gas is sprayed into an anteroom adjoining their cells. The boys, and four others, also tear-gassed, are shackled and dragged outdoors, crying and gagging, where they are sprayed with a fire hose.
That episode occurred in August 2014. Elferink had said at the time that the boys were trying to escape from the centre and were armed with metal bars and glass from broken windows. But the video shows some of them playing cards when the tear-gassing begins, and the entire episode appears to have taken place within a secure area.
Jared Sharp, a lawyer with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, said there had been “a deliberate effort to mislead the public about what had occurred.”
Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch Australia, said that an independent Northern Territory agency responsible for protecting children had exposed abuses in the juvenile detention system last year but that no action had been taken. “Excessive force is an abuse, and the perpetrators of such abuses should be held to account,” Pearson said. Later Tuesday, eight inmates at a Northern Territory correctional facility, the Alice Springs Adult Prison, climbed onto the prison’s roof to protest the treatment of juvenile detainees, according to a spokesperson for the police in Alice Springs, which is about 930 miles south of Darwin by road. A police negotiator had been called to speak with the prisoners, a spokesperson for the Northern Territory Correctional Services Department said. He said that the inmates were unarmed and that no one had been injured.
Ninety-eight per cent of juvenile detainees in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal, according to the Law Council of Australia. John B. Lawrence, a lawyer who has written reports on juvenile detention in the territory, said that Aboriginals were imprisoned there at a much higher rate than the general population and that the imprisonment of juveniles, often for petty offenses, had “gone through the roof.”
“It is a bad situation, and it is getting worse,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence said images in the “Four Corners” report of a 17-yearold boy shackled to a chair and forced to wear a hood were particularly disturbing. “You are looking at a child,” Lawrence said by telephone from Darwin. “He has been set upon by a number of fully grown, large guards, and strapped in this chair. He’s tied up, manacled and left there for hours. It takes you to a whole other dystopia.”
Turnbull said that the public inquiry, which is likely to be led by a former judge, would be held in conjunction with the Northern Territory government. “We want to know why there were inquiries into this centre which did not turn up the evidence and the information we saw on ‘Four Corners,’ ” Turnbull said.
But Lawrence said that it was important that the royal commission be fiercely independent. “The only involvement the Northern Territory government should have is as witnesses,” he said.
He’s tied up, manacled and left there for hours. It takes you to a whole other dystopia JARED SHARP LAWYER WITH THE NORTH AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL JUSTICE AGENCY
This frame grab from Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) “Four Corners” allegedly shows a teenage boy hooded and strapped into a chair at a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory city of Darwin in Australia.