The key witness in the Reza Barati murder trial remains on Manus Island, frightened for his life and receiving death threats from the guards against whom he has testified. By Di Cousens.

Reza Barati witness on Manus warned: ‘It’s very easy to kill you’

I don’t have the first message Behnam Satah sent to me. Facebook deleted his account and it was lost. I know that it was from October last year. Behnam had already been persuaded to give evidence in the case. 

Behnam Satah is an Iranian Kurd who witnessed the murder of Reza Barati on Manus Island on the night of February 17, 2014. When he sent his Facebook friend request, he was the key prosecution witness in the case against two Papua New Guinean men accused of killing Barati. He still is.

In any ordinary situation, Behnam would have been taken from detention on Manus Island and placed somewhere safe – ideally in Australia. But after almost two years, he is still locked on Manus, under the care of the guards against whose colleagues he is testifying. These men have threatened to kill him. 

“Every day guards sit outside my window for a couple of hours and stare at me,” he tells me from his new Facebook account. “They swear at me and say, ‘Go back to your country.’ ” 

He lives in constant fear, awake all night and trying to sleep in the heat of the day. “No one can ever imagine how it feels to think every time that someone might kill you. Every second I have to be alert at nights. When someone passes here I have to be prepared.”

Behnam began a hunger strike in January last year and after three days of not eating collapsed. He was taken to the medical facility in Manus and put on a drip. “I was receiving a drip,” he says. “Then ERT [emergency response team] came and they spoke with the doctors. My drip hadn’t finished and the doctor took out the needle and said, ‘Go and sit on that chair.’ ”

Behnam was then arrested and after a night in the police lock-up was taken to the Corrective Institutions Service prison, known as CIS. He was kept there for 21 days. During that time the two accused, Joshua Kaluvia and Louie Efi, were also in the prison. 

Refugee advocate Janet Galbraith has recorded some of Behnam’s description of his treatment, for the group Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites. “I was in the CIS jail with the two men who I saw murder my best friend, Reza,” Behnam told her. “There was only a two-metre fence between us – a fence that a five-year-old can jump… We were about 60 people in there [CIS]. I didn’t know that I am in the same prison with Joshua and Louie. Joshua [had been] my friend. He was working for the recreation team in the Salvation Army. He also was like a priest for Christian asylum seekers. I was always his interpreter for Kurdish and Iranian people in the centre. Even we made a Persian/Pidgin together. We knew each other well and we were close friends. They [Joshua and Louie] had all of the affidavits in jail with them. I think their lawyer provided them for them. When he [Joshua] found out I am in jail next to them he tells me: ‘Come to fence. I want to talk to you!’ We were in different cells and there was a fence between us. It was easy if they wanted to come to the other side. So I went to the fence; I couldn’t do anything else. He started threatening me and he said, ‘You have to withdraw your affidavit.’ He said the sentence for murder in his country is top three years and murder is normal in PNG. He said, ‘I give you a chance of living if you withdraw your affidavit.’ 

“Many times before jail I received threats from his relatives. They are still working in the centre. It wasn’t just me, it was other witnesses as well. I reported it to Transfield, Wilson [Security], Red Cross, UN, IHMS [International Health and Medical Services]. Everyone knew, they didn’t do anything. Wilson tortured me and Reza [the second witness to the Barati murder] in Chauka [a high-security compound] before and I reported it to [international lawyer] Ben Pynt when we were released. There was no investigation for that.”

While Behnam was in the CIS jail he was beaten badly by guards and received several injuries, including lacerations to a foot. The foot became infected and for the first few days he received no treatment. “My ankle, I had to put salt on it for many days for avoiding infection,” he tells me. “It was so painful to pour salt in the wound but I had no choice. The infection was coming like water; it was a dirty place.”

After some days he was taken to Lorengau hospital for treatment. Once again, both men accused of Barati’s murder were there and both confronted him. “I sat in a corner, then they both came to me,” Behnam told Galbraith. “There was one prison guard with us inside. They said: ‘It’s very easy to kill you, you know. We can do it right now but we don’t if you withdraw your affidavit.’ They said: ‘We can reach you whenever we want.’ They said: ‘You must do it.’ I said: ‘Okay!’ They said, ‘Don’t forget our deal’ when I left CIS. It’s very bad to feel like someone might kill you always. It’s very bad. I have to be alert all the times. I don’t normally sleep at night because when someone walks I wake up. I sleep in the heat in that time.”

Behnam was later persuaded by the Papua New Guinea court to give evidence against Kaluvia and Efi. He was promised protection by Justice Nicholas Kirriwom and the Manus detention centre management, but has received none.

1 . Immense suffering

The suffering on Manus Island is immense. It fills my conversations with the men there, beyond Behnam. One Pakistani man tells me he spent 19 days in prison without any charge. He was beaten by guards. “We become crazy here,” he writes. “We have mental health issues.” 

I am told about repeated suicide attempts and a strange situation where a man was left sitting in the rain for two days, in a dissociated state, before being brought inside and given medical attention. The guards just walked past him. 

A Burmese Rohingya man tells me: “My life continues in this terrible prison. The food is getting worse and the dirty toilets have caused so many infections. You would not believe how many men are sick… I hear men crying and screaming in their sleep. It is so painful but I do not know what I can do. I need help and no one is helping us.” He says there are about 40 men in his room. There is sickness everywhere. “I worry about my future. I feel easily tired. I think I got heart problems. I am so worried about my life.”

The Kurdish Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani says the Australian government is torturing the asylum seekers on Manus. “What can I say about this hell prison and how can I describe the pain and suffering? Who can answer our questions and explain what human rights and freedom means? … I feel a strange pain in my mind and heart because nobody can answer my questions and they are treating me like a criminal. We begin the day with pain and we sleep under nightmares.”

An Iranian man who was also a witness to the murder of Reza Barati dreams every night of being killed. “Last night I had a dream that they put us inside the plane,” he tells me. “When the plane is above the sky they open the door and then they throw out each person by force to the sea.”

2 . Petitioning the PM

A psychiatrist on Manus last week confirmed that Behnam has post-traumatic stress disorder. He has chronic chest pain, which is being managed only with Panadol. It has led to a loss of function in his left leg and left arm. He has been given no X-rays, and the excruciating pain in his chest has not been treated. In the past few days he has developed a strange feeling of coldness when going to sleep. He says it feels like dying. “Sometimes when I want to fall asleep my body becomes cold,” he tells me. “I think I won’t wake up but I wake up again. I have become very tired. It is hot here and I don’t use a blanket. That feeling is very strange. As soon as I want to fall asleep it comes one or two times and then after 15 minutes I sleep. It is like my soul goes out of my body and I feel cold.”

On November 25 last year, I wrote to the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and asked that Behnam Satah be brought to Australia because he should be protected as a witness. Turnbull’s office advised that my letter was forwarded to the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, but Dutton has not replied. On January 6 I delivered a petition to Parliament House addressed to the prime minister requesting Behnam’s immediate release and transfer to live in the community in Australia. The petition had 600 signatures. On January 11 I sent the same petition, with 4280 signatures. On Monday, I sent the same petition to the prime minister – now with more than 16,000 signatures – again requesting Behnam’s release and transfer to the Australian community. 

Behnam Satah’s life is in danger, both from the guards at Manus whose friends he has put in the dock and from the breakdown of his own health. In my ordinary life, I am a university administrator and have written risk assessment plans. As a risk manager, you have to plot the likelihood of events and the seriousness of the consequences. Death is considered a catastrophic consequence, and where death has previously occurred and the conditions remain the same it is classed as “highly likely”.

It is highly likely that Behnam’s life is at risk, and his death would be a catastrophic consequence. Someone responsible for managing these risks would act immediately to bring him to Australia and would provide the necessary medical care. What we have, unfortunately, is a government that has failed to recognise the risks and failed to manage them. We have a situation of catastrophic negligence. 

Australian taxes paid the wages of the guards accused of killing Reza Barati. Behnam’s protection as a witness is Australia’s responsibility. All of the suffering in the offshore camps has happened on our watch. The situation has gone long past risk – the embedded suffering that is normal life in these camps must stop.

“I have been trying so much to survive that I have forgotten how to live,” Behnam tells me. “I am still in the same boat in a dangerous ocean in which there is no place to land. For 31 months my call for help has gone nowhere. SOS.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 23, 2016 as "Manus witness warned: ‘It’s very easy to kill you’".

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Di Cousens is a university administrator.

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