'Abu Ghraib'-style images of children in detention in Australia trigger public inquiry

Australian prime minister says he is ‘deeply shocked and appalled’ by footage of teenager being hooded in a restraint chair and other apparent abuses

Australia’s prime minister has launched a public inquiry following the broadcast of footage of children in detention being abused, hooded and bound in a manner likened to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

Malcolm Turnbull announced a royal commission hours after the national broadcaster aired shocking footage showing children in detention at the Don Dale facility outside Darwin in the Northern Territory.

Footage aired on the ABC’s Four Corners program on Monday showed one youth being stripped and physically held down by guards.

In another scene that the program compared with images from Guantánamo Bay or the Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad, 17-year-old Dylan Voller was shown hooded and tied in a restraint chair for two hours.

The chairs are among items recently including in a widened list of “approved restraints” under laws passed by the NT government.

Voller – who was featured repeatedly suffering apparent mistreatment at the hands of guards – and five other former Don Dale prisoners intend to sue the Northern Territory government over their treatment in detention.

Peter O’Brien, the lawyer representing Voller and another former prisoner, Jake Roper, said Voller was currently in a form of segregated imprisonment in an adult prison and called for his immediate release. “The impact of these years of brutalisation must be immediately measured and he needs immediate assistance.”

The footage broadcast on Four Corners was recorded in 2014 and 2015 but the program also looked at long-running issues and instances of mistreatment in the NT’s youth justice system.

Turnbull said that he was “deeply shocked ... and appalled” at the instances of abuse at the centre revealed in the investigation.

The revelations cast a new spotlight on Australia’s treatment of Indigenous people in general and also on the NT government’s hardline approach to crime.

Indigenous youths make up 96% of the young prison population in the Northern Territory and Indigenous people are overwhelmingly represented in the NT prison system across the board. Indigenous people make up 30% of the overall population of the NT.

Turnbull said the inquiry would have to examine instances of abuse at the Don Dale facility specifically but it would also consider “whether there is a culture that spreads across the detention system in the Northern Territory, whether it was specific to that centre”.

“The important thing is to get to the bottom of what happened at Don Dale and there may be other matters connected to that to be looked into.”

He did not call for Don Dale to be immediately shut down but said children in detention should be treated humanely. He said the royal commission would be conducted jointly with the NT government and established as soon as possible.

Both Turnbull and the NT chief minister, Adam Giles, emphasised speed, with a commissioner likely to be appointed shortly and substantive evidence to be heard from September. A final report would be tabled early next year.

Giles assumed responsibility for the corrections portfolio on Tuesday afternoon after calls for the minister, John Elferink, to resign or be sacked over the revelations of Four Corners. (Elferink remains the state’s attorney general.)

In a press conference, he insisted that he had not seen the footage before it was broadcast but watched “with horror”.

“I think over time there has most certainly been a culture of cover-up within the corrections system,” Giles said.

The police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, also said the footage was new to him. He announced the establishment of a special task force that would investigate whether any criminal offences had been committed.

Staff at the Don Dale juvenile detention facility used teargas on youths who were reportedly attempting to escape on 22 August 2014, although CCTV vision showed only one boy had escaped and of the six boys who were exposed to the gas, five were locked in their cells and not all were misbehaving.

Two were shown to be calmly playing cards in their cell moments before the incident.

In response to the footage, Unicef Australia raised the possibility that the prolonged periods of solitary confinement, strip searches and use of unjustifiable force of children shown on the Four Corners program “may amount to torture” by the NT government.

Many politicians in both government and opposition have expressed shock that such brutal treatment of children could occur in their country.

“This is not Australia,” said the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, who insisted that the Northern Territory senator and Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, would have acted if he had known about the abuse.

Scullion later said it was “some of the most disturbing footage” he had ever seen and the behaviour of individual officers shown on Four Corners was “evil” and unabashed.

“There was no concern about cameras,” he said. “They knew that their behaviour was not right, it was evil, but they also knew they had absolutely no chance of that being a problem to anyone, such was the culture of cover-up.”

Tanya Plibersek, the acting leader of Australia’s Labor party, the federal opposition, said she found Four Corners’ report “shocking”.

“I think any Australian – any human being, anywhere would have been shocked by the footage. ... It is impossible to think that this has been happening in the Northern Territory for a number of years.”

She said Labor supported the royal commission and expected to be involved in setting its terms with the government. “It is absolutely vital that we get to the bottom of what was happening in this detention facility.”

But many advocates working in the sector in the NT have expressed a disturbing lack of surprise over the revelations of Four Corners report.

Dr Stephen Gray, an associate of Monash University’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, says the revelations over the past 24 hours are an unsurprising outcome of the NT’s “strong law and order agenda and its culture of incarceration”.

“The detention centre images will damage Australia’s international standing, not to mention the Northern Territory’s position as a place that has supposedly emerged from the old cowboy culture.”

The national children’s commissioner, Megan Mitchell, said conditions at the Don Dale centre in particular were “extremely poor” and described her lasting impression as “one of cage wire and cement”.

“The MO of the NT government is this: shoot the messenger, discredit the report and demonise these kids, so people out of the street think it’s OK for that to happen to these kids.”

Gillian Triggs, the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, told reporters in Sydney comparisons of the abuses of Don Dale with those in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib were “not too extreme”.

She said the abuses at Don Dale were one manifestation of a “trend in Australia over the last 10 years” of detention under extraordinary conditions – often arbitrary, indefinite and without right to appeal.

“I would make the broader point that when you chip away at the rule of law and basic rights, ultimately you falter profoundly... with [the emergence of] a culture that has allowed this to occur in the Northern Territory.”

Mick Gooda, the social justice and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander commissioner, was emotional when he addressed media.

“Our people have known about things like this ... and to just see it laid bare in front of us last night must be a wake-up call to everyone in Australia – that something’s got to be done about the way we lock our people up in this country, and particularly the way we lock our kids up.

“What we saw last night is an absolute disgrace.”

Gooda said Australia needed to examine the underlying causes of why children were being detained in the first place. “I refuse to believe our kids are the most criminal kids in the world, just as I refuse to believe our people are the most criminal.”


Helen Davidson in Darwin, Paul Karp in Canberra and Elle Hunt in Sydney

The GuardianTramp

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