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As the Immigration Department faced senate estimates, a witness to the murder of Reza Barati fears retribution from the man he helped convict. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Safety fears for Manus Island murder witness

Behnam Satah, at the Manus Island detention centre.
Credit: Behrouz Boochani

Behnam Satah feels like a marked man. An Iranian detainee on Manus Island, he testified against Joshua Kaluvia in the latter’s trial for the murder of asylum seeker Reza Barati. Barati died of a “catastrophic cranial injury” – his head was crushed with a rock – during violent protests in 2014. Last year, Kaluvia and another man, Louie Efi, were convicted of his killing. They were both local employees of the camp.

Since then, Behnam says, he and the other witnesses have been threatened with retribution. He tells me that he doesn’t believe those threats are idle – locals resent the camp’s presence, and many are angry at his testifying against Kaluvia. In 2015, while placed in the same hospital as the accused, Behnam tells me that Kaluvia threatened to kill him if he testified.

Behnam’s fear increased in March last year when Kaluvia escaped prison. He was a fugitive for weeks. A fortnight ago, Kaluvia escaped again. As I write this, he remains at large. Behnam says he wasn’t notified by camp staff of Kaluvia’s escape – he found out through an Australian news report. “Nobody come to speak with me,” Behnam says. “I wanted to know what security measures they will provide, because it’s very easy for anyone to come to camp now. Even by today, nobody has come [to inform me].”

The threat of Kaluvia entering the centre was considered sufficient for images of the wanted man to be posted around the site. Above Kaluvia’s mugshot are the words: “This man is not to enter the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre.”  

The threat was also considered sufficient for Behnam and another witness to seek somewhere to hide in Port Moresby. When I spoke to Behnam earlier this week, he told me officials had just intercepted him at the airport and were returning him to camp. Detainees are only permitted restricted access outside the camp, and can take a coach to nearby Lorengau for rostered day trips. Once in Lorengau, Behnam purchased a shuttle bus ticket to the airport from a local hotel. He used the money he received from selling his rationed cigarettes in the camp.

“Immigration and police came and didn’t allow us to go,” he tells me. “They spoke with the lady who was issuing boarding pass and she didn’t let us go. We wanted to go to [Port Moresby] until he is arrested. We don’t feel safe here. I have to go back to camp. I will try another way if he wouldn’t be arrested. There is no protection for anybody. My protection is my friends.”

Behnam says he doesn’t trust the camp security to protect him – Efi was previously employed as a camp guard by G4S. “I barely sleep,” he says. “I can’t concentrate on anything. Nightmares have been a part of my life for long time. I don’t want to die for doing right thing. I did testify for murder of my roommate and one of my best friends. Why should I be punished for doing right?”

As Behnam was escorted back to the centre on Monday, the legal and constitutional affairs legislation committee began its senate estimates hearings in Canberra. The first department to be questioned by senators was immigration and border protection. The issue of Kaluvia’s escape, and the failure to properly notify witnesses, was raised by Greens senator Nick McKim.

McKim was interested to know whether the failure to inform the witnesses of Kaluvia’s escape was a failure for which Australia bore some responsibility; departmental secretary Michael Pezzullo, rightly but irrelevantly, said that how Papua New Guinea runs its prisons is its business. “Whether it is acceptable or not, you can draw your own conclusion, but this is within the jurisdiction of Papua New Guinea,” Pezzullo responded. Later, he expanded: “I will give you an assurance that we will look at it but it is not immediately clear to me how that is a contractual matter. It is something where Australian departmental officers and their contractors would be guided by PNG police and other authorities. It is really for them to make decisions about who is notified about an escape. They might not want to notify for all sorts of reasons.”

Visa processing times questioned

There were a number of issues about immigration and offshore detention raised in the estimates hearings this week – the US resettlement deal, the quality of refugee processing in offshore centres, and visa application processes for refugees among them. Recent news reports of letters received by asylum seekers in Australia on bridging visas suggested that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection had suddenly slashed the deadline for temporary protection visa application from one year to two months – a decision, the reports said, that could result in deportations or cuts to subsistence funding.

These reports seemed misleading. There are currently some 30,000 people who comprise the so-called “legacy caseload” – asylum seekers who reached Australia before then prime minister Kevin Rudd reinstated offshore processing in 2013 and determined that no one who arrived by boat would be settled here. Most of these people – in groups whose status is dictated by a palimpsest of conditions and requirements that have changed under successive ministers – were permitted to apply for temporary protection visas or safe haven enterprise visas in late 2015 and early 2016, with a year-long grace period. The letters – the department says just 879 have been sent since late last year – were in fact 60-day extensions to those who had yet to apply for protection visas and for whom their one-year period had already, or would imminently, lapse.

“Progressively, we are working our way through the case load,” Michael Manthorpe, a deputy secretary of the department, told the committee this week. “But we cannot get anywhere unless people apply. Whilst we have been accelerating the rate at which processing of the visa applications has been going and we have been seeking to work our way through it, there are a group who are yet to apply. Some of those were invited to apply a considerable time ago, so we are sending them reminder letters saying: ‘You still have an opportunity to apply. You have a further 60 days to apply. Make contact with us. If you are connected with a status resolution support services provider, for example, make contact with them.’ We are encouraging them to apply, but we are also pointing out that, if they do not apply, ultimately there are consequences for that.”

I ask David Manne, the executive director of Refugee Legal, which offers pro bono assistance to visa applicants, about this apparent contradiction. It seems logical that the government could not permit bridging visas to be held indefinitely. Manne says the problem is not shortened application times but the process itself. “These people are not refusing to apply,” he says. “They just want the help they need. What these letters do is coerce people into rushing ahead with complex and onerous paperwork, which is all in English. To understand this process means people need legal assistance. And what’s been removed is public legal assistance. The delays result from the government’s own processes, and we’re working through cases for free.”

Manne tells me that he has met with the department to discuss “reasonable time frames” for visa applications, arguing that government cuts to legal assistance have overwhelmed refugee legal centres like his. “These letters blindsided people applying because up until then we had met with the department to ensure co-ordinated processes. These 60-day letters have created great fear and panic through the refugee community. What those letters do is threaten an arbitrary deadline – arbitrary because there’s nothing in law about it.

“We’ve had a huge scale-up of voluntary assistance, and we’ll scale up even further. We have more than 550 volunteers, including 130 corporate lawyers. There’s a serious miscarriage of justice here – it could mean the deportation of people to torture or death.”

Although the department argues that there are still forms of government assistance, including online help, Manne dismisses the online assistance as “totally useless”. “What happens next is that we’ll urge the government to reconsider their approach,” Manne says. “We need a change from coercion to co-operation.”

Pezzullo on US deal

Secretary Pezzullo told the senate committee this week that United States officials were “ready to commence” the vetting of offshore detainees as part of the so-called US deal. Notwithstanding the details of President Donald Trump’s forthcoming, revised executive order on immigration, it appears as if the deal, originally struck with the Obama administration, will be honoured. Given Trump’s capriciousness, however, this is no certainty.

Pezzullo explained the process’s status: “We work with two agencies in the United States system. The state department does the refugee pre-screening – that is to say, it examines the claims as to persecution. In this case they have a head start, obviously, because they have status determination decisions from either Nauru or Papua New Guinea, but under US law they still have to come to their own position of being satisfied on those claims. So that is on foot, and there have been teams from the state department, which they exercise through a contracted arrangement with the Resettlement Support Centre, which is located somewhere in South-East Asia – I cannot quite remember where they come from – they have had teams on both Nauru and, I think still, Manus, doing that refugee pre-screening. 

“The second phase will commence once the Department of Homeland Security… they conduct the vetting under the security requirements and, as the present administration has made clear, they are currently looking at their vetting thresholds. So until that process has concluded our colleagues in the homeland security department are poised and ready but still need to await that authorisation to commence the vetting process.”

Should the US deal hold, Behnam Satah is still unsure of his eligibility. As previously reported in The Saturday Paper, he was negatively vetted – not through a negative finding, but because he refused to co-operate. Behnam believed that his involvement would confirm his refugee status, which would then oblige his settlement in Papua New Guinea – a dangerous proposition, he told me. He remains in limbo.

Remembering Barati

“Hi Reza,” starts a letter to the murdered man written this week, and shared with me by Ben Moghimi, a Manus detainee. “Can you hear me? Tell me you are enjoying your freedom in heaven? I’ve heard you are in good place in heaven. I heard there is no securities, high fences, faded flowers, broken faces. Nothing has changed, a few more guys joined you such as Hamid and Faysal.

“Reza the securities who were in 17 of February 2014 (those people who thought here is slaughter house) many of them still work here. Reza one more thing, the person who killed you he escaped for second time from jail… Reza please tell me more from there!! Rest in peace.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Safety fears". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.