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Amid false reports and an official policy of evasion, the public is being kept in the dark about the murderous violence at the Manus Island detention centre. By Max Opray.

The silence on Manus Island

As Treasurer Joe Hockey announced one of his budget speech triumphs – the impending closure of nine detention centres – Immigration Minister Scott Morrison stared grimly into space.

The onshore processing facilities could be shut down, Hockey proclaimed, because the boats were no longer arriving.

After years of three-word slogans in opposition, and months of operational silence in government, this should have been Morrison’s moment of glory. But there he sat, still and bleak on the front bench of parliament, like a prisoner in the dock.

Perhaps, Morrison was contemplating what price had been paid to reach this moment, and if the sheer cost of it all would end up outweighing the benefits.

Not the financial cost, although that is up for debate: while hundreds of millions of dollars will be saved from closing the Australian-based detention centres, Transfield was in late February awarded a $1.2 billion contract to run the troubled offshore facilities in Nauru and Manus Island for the next 18 months.

The cost weighting Morrison’s stare, however, was likely altogether more human: the price paid at the Manus Island detention centre, where an Iranian asylum seeker in his care, Reza Barati, was killed and 67 others were injured.

Infrastructure concerns ignored

What we now know about the events that led to the violence of February 17 is this: nine months earlier, former Manus Island camp manager G4S issued the first of many warnings to the immigration department – then under Labor – that the facility’s security infrastructure was woefully inadequate.

A spokesperson for Morrison told The Saturday Paper it was Labor that  had underfunded offshore processing facilities to the tune of $1.2 billion, and that the minister had eventually authorised security upgrades in November following the completion of a review.

Reports and emails obtained by Fairfax Media, however, show that in the weeks leading up to the fatal riot, nothing had changed to improve the fencing. In an email to senior departmental figures on January 30, G4S requested scores of additional guards be flown in urgently to form a human chain around the camp.

“The reason we are requesting these extra guards is because the security infrastructure is so poor, despite our requesting improvements to fencing from June and more recently in October following the minister’s visit,” wrote G4S managing director of immigration services Chris Manning.

The immigration department initially denied the request for extra manpower, but eventually relented. Assistant secretary Simon Schiwy advised G4S tensions should be eased through providing better amenities, not just security measures.

Manning replied that the problem stemmed from the immigration department’s behaviour, not G4S efforts. “The issue that the transferees are protesting about is not about access to better amenity, but about knowing what is happening to them,” he wrote. “The feedback I’m receiving is that the transferees ‘get’ that they are not going to Australia but … they want to see … progress of some sort in status determination.”

Morrison visited Manus Island in September. While there, he found the time to not only see the flimsy fencing structures for himself, but also to deliver a remarkably blunt message to the centre’s inmates. According to accounts made by former G4S guard Martin Appleby to Guardian Australia, the minister told the asylum seekers: “You will never see the shores of Australia.” 

Appleby claimed the speech dramatically escalated tensions within the camp, sparking a state of high alert for riot, fire and self-harm. Months of heightened tensions followed, and on February 16 the Papua New Guinea  immigration authority held a meeting with detainees that would prove to be the final straw. 

The Manus Island inmates were told in no uncertain terms that they would not be resettled in a third country: PNG or a return home would be their only options. Hours later, 35 asylum seekers escaped the centre, a move that prompted a violent response from local security staff who had been given just six days of training.

The next morning, Morrison held a press conference where, in what would become a recurring theme, he delivered information later shown to be inaccurate. “G4S utilised personal protection gear but no batons or other weapons were in situ, and were in control of the centre for the entire period,” he said.

Footage later emerged of G4S guards pelting detainees with rocks, chairs and other objects, and harrying them back into the facility with sticks and table legs. One lone Australian guard is shown desperately holding off his local co-workers from entering one of the buildings to continue beating the inmates.

The following evening, at least 50 asylum seekers started a protest that prompted the deployment of the PNG police and dog squad along the perimeter fence. The very fences that G4S had repeatedly requested be upgraded were breached, although what the company had perhaps not anticipated is that the assault would come from people breaking in, not breaking out.

Morrison initially claimed the detainees escaped the centre and therefore had only themselves to blame for leaving the zone of control where Australia could guarantee their safety. He also asserted that PNG police had at no point entered the compound.

Violence erupts

These were not trivial misstatements, and while he backed away from them four days later, it is altogether unclear on what Morrison based his original assessments. Given the very first witness accounts within the facility and G4S’s initial report recognised that the PNG police and dogs had in fact entered the centre and clashed with asylum seekers, his certainty serves only to highlight his prevarication.

A frenzy of violence erupted upon the arrival of police, which would leave 13 detainees requiring facial reconstructions, one missing an eye, one with a bullet in his buttocks, and Reza Barati with a shattered skull.

Photos subsequently leaked to the media confirmed at least one section of the fence was breached from the outside, and that the interior of the facility was badly damaged and covered in blood. Morrison refused to comment. A departmental investigation was under way – that was all that could be confirmed. As evidence mounted, that was all that would be said.

In one room faeces smeared across a mattress indicated a detainee had soiled themselves in fear. A raft of accounts describe the PNG police firing guns, other locals breaking into the centre to join the fight, asylum seekers dragged out of rooms and viciously beaten, and protesters turning on other detainees who had refused to participate in the struggle.

One guard claimed G4S had given the go-ahead for PNG police to enter.

Barati's fate

As for Barati, a fellow Iranian asylum seeker told the ABC the 23-year-old was making his way back to his room from the internet facility when a local PNG man wielding a large wooden stick with two protruding nails attacked him at the top of a staircase. The account suggests two Australian G4S security staff and a dozen locals then swarmed around Barati, with some of them kicking him in the head and stomach. According to the asylum seeker, one of the locals dealt the final blow, pounding Barati’s head with a large rock. Still Morrison remained silent.

The testimony is similar to the accounts of two other former detainees, Mahmoud Obeid and Mohamad Asaad, who afterwards chose to return home to a region of Lebanon racked by sectarian violence rather than stick it out any longer at Manus.

Asaad told The Hoopla Australian G4S staff participated in the initial assault of Barati, and a local man finished him off with a rock. Both men made the additional claim that it was the Australians who first incited the Papua New Guineans to attack the Manus Island facility.

Obeid said a local guard had told him the asylum seeker unrest the day before had frustrated Australian detention centre security staff into provoking the community to respond. “He said we got information from the Australians that you’re going to come out and kill us on the island and take our houses,” he said.

It is understood two Australian guards are now wanted for questioning by PNG police.

In total, five investigations are ongoing into what happened that night to Barati and his fellow detainees. All face significant challenges to get to the bottom of the events, given the crime scene was cleaned up before evidence could be collected, and that death threats have allegedly been made toward witnesses to Barati’s slaying.

As for the 1273 asylum seekers still trapped on Manus Island, the best they can seemingly hope for is that one day, if they’re lucky, they might get a new fence.

On budget night, perhaps, Morrison was thinking of what else could have been saved.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "The silence on Manus Island". Subscribe here.

Max Opray
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist.