My father had a rawhide whip that his father had brought from Africa. He told us that it was a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man. As young children even before we really knew what the words meant, we knew that this whip was a thing of dread. Reading Michael Otterman’s book American Torture reminded me of this early lesson in human rights abuse.
Otterman’s book details the journey of American torture and interrogation techniques from their covert operation phase in the late 1950s to the overt operations of today. The analysis is especially chilling because it details the evidence of doctors and psychologists working with military and intelligence agencies in experimenting on human beings to explore the limits of their endurance. It is a step-by-step guide detailing how spirits were broken and lives were lost in the search for a mythical formula that would wring information from the ‘enemy’.
The journey is a repugnant one for anyone with a belief in the preciousness of human rights. It helps to explain how the cruelty in Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo was condoned and encouraged. Techniques were assembled into programs like the Phoenix program, DDD (Debility, Dependency and Dread) and SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). Most recently employed in Guantanamo, such techniques were specifically designed to ‘convince the detainee that death or severely painful consequences are imminent for him or his family’. Lead-up techniques include ‘yelling, painful stress positioning, isolation for up to 30 days at a time, 24 hour interrogation and using detainees’ individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) … to induce cooperation … by weakening the detainee’s mental and physical ability to resist’.
The details of these methods bear a chilling similarity to methods used in Australia’s immigration detention centres. Let me state at the outset that I am not saying that people detained in the Australian detention camps and centres (IDCs) were subject to the same torture or interrogation as prisoners of the American government in Iraq, Afghanistan or Cuba. However, analysis of the practices and methods used in Australian IDCs does reveal disturbing patterns akin to the methods employed by the US government to get information from those suspected of being terrorists or of having information about terrorists. While Australian detainees were not tortured, harsh aggressive methods were used with the officially expressed intention of pressuring long-term detainees to sign forms agreeing to ‘voluntarily’ leave Australia. This latter measure was revealed in a leaked memo in which John Okley, a senior immigration bureaucrat, said ‘the key to ensuring voluntary departure lies in the creation of a credible threat of involuntary removal’.
When we consider that asylum seekers in detention centres have committed no crime and are seeking protection from a country that is signatory to the Refugee Convention, we are left asking if ‘credible threat’ was the only reason asylum seekers were exposed to such methods. What concerns me here is the question of the origin of the processes governing the detention of asylum seekers. Were the American methods of torture and interrogation adapted in Australia specifically for use with asylum seekers? Might Australia’s contract with Wackenhut, the US security company that traded as Australasian Corrections Management and delivered detention services in Australia, have played any role in this?
These may be unanswerable questions at this point, but the striking similarities between the treatment of terror suspects in US facilities and asylum seekers in Australian facilities can be seen in the techniques described by Otterman and examples from the Australian context, described below.
Otterman writes that isolation is extensively used in all US facilities and that its effects are profound. It came to be employed after expert psychiatric and psychological opinion found that it constituted an effective method of breaking down the human spirit such that the detainee would comply with whatever was asked of him or her to end the isolation. Isolation of various types was extensively used on asylum seekers throughout Australian IDCs. One form of isolation, used on asylum seekers on arrival, is ‘Separation Detention’, which was designed to keep detainees isolated, denying them access to news of any kind from the outside world. Detainees were allowed to mix only with those with whom they had arrived, denied even one phone call home to tell their families they had survived the journey to Australia. One family told me recently that for fourteen months their families in Iraq had thought they had drowned and had held funerals for them. In Curtin IDC people were held for eleven months without an interview or any word of their fate reaching their families, and this in a building with no access to outside air and light. Families with children were included in this practice. As recently as 2005 a teenager who had escaped a massacre in Darfur was held in a compound in Baxter for one week totally alone before being interviewed.
Solitary isolation in permanently lit or permanently dark cells was used for detainees who became distressed and suicidal. In Port Hedland one man was held for sixty- three days in a padded cell behind a heavy door seemingly for no reason other than as an example to others. Children were also locked up with their parents. One mother described having to teach her child how to use a plastic bag because guards would not let them go to the toilet. Isolation was used at Woomera and Baxter as well as at city centres.
Another man, who was on a UN communication list as having been the youngest prisoner in the notorious Evin prison in Iran, was placed in isolation in an Australian IDC for three months. He has related how he was allowed out of the cell for thirty minutes a day only. This system of isolation detention was documented and formalised in Baxter. ‘Juliet block’ in Port Hedland was extensively used to isolate a group of detainees who organised themselves into a committee so that they might have more effective communication with Immigration officials (then called DIMA, then DIMIAand now called DIAC).
Global Solutions Limited (GSL) replaced Australian Correctional Management in 2003 as the private contract service provider. It formalised the punishment regime at Baxter by introducing a written contract for detainees to sign when they were placed in ‘RED ONE’ for punishment. This was done with no reference to any independent authority or any monitoring. Such contracts detailed the number of hours in solitary confinement, the time allowed in fresh air, the number of weeks the detainee was to be locked in RED ONE and the punishments to be exacted if the detainee failed to abide by the rules. Cornelia Rau was subjected to this regime even though she was psychotic and so ill that she was unable to understand, much less obey, the complex rules. Ironically, one benefit of this formalisation process was that these written contracts were smuggled out, providing proof that isolation was being used both as punishment and in lieu of psychological treatment, despite the Immigration Minister’s claims that detention was purely administrative and not punitive.
According to Otterman, subjecting detainees to intense cold has been used extensively by US intelligence services in South America. An American missionary in Brazil, who was arrested and subjected to this treatment as part of the torture process before interrogation, relates in Otterman’s book how it resulted in nervous breakdown. It is eerie that in Baxter many detainees who were locked up in the Management Unit (isolation cells) reported that if they refused to eat, the air conditioning would be turned up in their cells. Since many were stripped and wearing only short cotton gowns, they shivered for hours. Where did the guards at Baxter get the idea to use this method of punishment to induce compliance?
Sudden Transfers and Removals
As early as 1958 CIA literature on the treatment of suspects advised early morning shock arrests as part of the ‘softening up process’. According to expert opinion, according to Otterman, ‘the arrest should take the subject by surprise and should impose … the greatest possible degree of mental discomfort … when … physical and mental resistance is at its lowest’. Otterman writes that ‘dread is crucial to the interrogation process because it induces regression’. In Australian IDCs dread, fear and anxiety were extensively used ‘to strengthen the subject’s tendencies towards compliance’. It is hard to understand why this process was used on innocent asylum seekers in Australian IDCs except if we remember the concept of ‘credible threat’ — to induce agreement to voluntary removal.
Many long-term detainees were ‘extracted’ and moved from one detention centre to another with no prior warning. For example, detainees in Port Hedland and Woomera would be woken before dawn by guards shaking them and shouting that they were being moved. I met three Iranian men who had been subjected to this treatment in 2003. They were woken and taken out of Port Hedland in their pyjama shorts and t-shirts with nothing on their feet, then flown to Perth, and then onto Melbourne on a domestic flight. They said how cold and de-humanising it was to arrive in Melbourne in May in such a state.
Another method was to call a detainee over the loud speaker to the office on some pretext and then to grab them for removal without allowing them to return to collect personal possessions or say goodbye. This unsettled everyone and created fear. It also reminded detainees from countries where disappearance is routine just how vulnerable they were. Deportation was the great fear. No one was sure if the detainee was being transferred or deported. Often it would be days before this could be established.
Threats and Lies
Late in 2003 Minister Ruddock negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding with Iran. He then instructed DIMAto tell all the Iranians in detention that they had twenty-eight days to sign up to voluntary return or face a forced removal. At the same time DIMAbureaucrat John Okely advised how to persuade the Iranians to return voluntarily in an official Minute to Minister Ruddock. ‘The Department’s experience suggests that for all but the hard-core detainees, the key to ensuring voluntary departure lies in the creation of a credible threat of involuntary removal’ (my emphasis). Detainees were called up day after day and told to sign.
Detention policies by 2003 were aimed at getting people to leave. An immigration spokesperson told the Senate that, ‘They are being told that they can either co-operate now or wait until they are forced to go. Staying is not an option. This point is being made very forcefully, you can be assured of that’. Rules and conditions changed daily and became selectively punitive. Food deteriorated; access to medical support was subject to lengthy delays as people’s mental and physical health deteriorated. People were carted off to Management Unit for minor infringements of the rules or when they became distressed.
We have all seen media footage of hooded men in orange suits shackled together and shuffling across tarmacs. In 2002 an FBI agent reported an incident with a Guantanamo detainee in which the methods of restraint were incidentally described. These included handcuffs and the use of a waist-shackling belt. Such belts were introduced in Baxter in 2003 for use on detainees who were assessed as suicidal. People in this condition had their hands shackled to a waist belt before being put in an isolation cell in Baxter’s Management Unit. Sometimes feet were also cuffed and a head guard used to stop distressed mentally ill patients banging their heads against the wall. The aim was suicide prevention — not treatment. At this time mental illness was not treated in hospital; detainees exhibiting such symptoms were deemed to be ‘playing up’.
In a report on Australian conditions the United Nations Association noted ‘ongoing violence in institutional living appears to be accepted as the norm’ by the government. While the Immigration Detention Standards state that ‘only such force as is reasonably necessary and proportionate in the circumstances [may] be used’, no attempt is made to define how this statement is to be interpreted. With limited monitoring of private contractors, there are few effective limits to the physical restraints employed.
A mother who was flown from Perth to Port Hedland with her husband and children was handcuffed to her plane seat. Her three-year-old daughter wept throughout the flight in fear; the mother told me how she was unable to hold her child to comfort her.
Forced Nudity and Strip Searching
In 2001 Minister Ruddock sought powers to strip search children as young as ten. The Senate refused, but allowed strip-searching of adult detainees. This opened the door for a most effective method of control, also outlined in Otterman’s book. At various times strip-searching was carried out with the excuse that guards were looking for weapons. After the Woomera fires strip-searching became extensive as one means of enforcing a policy to pressure the Iranians to go home. At first the men were not able to speak of this indignity. They said things such as ‘they have taken my spirit’. Then slowly it came out that they were being asked to take off their underpants, bend over and stand with their legs apart while guards roughly examined their genitals.
In 2003 an immigration official admitted that the Iranians had been strip-searched six times. I talked to one young man from Africa who told me that he had refused to take off his underwear and so was placed in a room by himself. Police and guards came in every hour and asked if he would strip. He refused hour after hour. He told me that he had decided that no matter what they did to him he could not strip. He said that he was shaking and sick when they came after ten hours. They patted him down and let him go. Two days later he signed to leave the country. They could not send him to his own country so they sent him to Syria on a six-week travel document. He knew no one there; he had never even visited Syria. I met him at Melbourne airport for a few minutes on his way through. He would be illegal in Syria within six weeks, without a passport. He was a broken man.
In 2004 guards were involved in another incident at Baxter. They crowded into a room where a young man was lying asleep on his bed. They pulled off his underpants and held him face down. He later reported that something hard and cold was forced into his rectum. He complained to the Police liaison officer in Baxter who after viewing the camera footage said that he saw no evidence to support the complaint and so the matter was closed. This boy also complained to the Ombudsman’s office and the Human Rights Commissioner. I rang the priest at Port Augusta seeking advice. He told me that he had seen the boy after the incident and that he believed him. I made an official complaint to the Human Rights Commissioner, also raising my concern that the guard who had allegedly assaulted this boy was still in the compound on duty.
Two months later another Baxter detainee, who had recently been released, reported a chilling incident that had occurred in the room next to his. He described guards banging and shouting next door, and how he was told to get into his room and close the door. He told me that after some time he saw the man from the next room carried out face down, held by his arms and legs, naked. When they got to the end of the veranda, a towel was thrown across his bare buttocks. I then realised that he was describing the same event. Nothing was ever done about this assault. The young man was released from detention and given a visa. The only assault for which a guard has ever been charged was one inadvertently witnessed by three chaplains at Baxter. Complaints made by detainees were never taken seriously.
This descent into hell continued until a blonde, blue-eyed, ex-Qantas air hostess was found locked up in isolation in the Baxter hell hole. Journalists discovered detention centres. Television and radio resonated with tales of trauma. Detention was exposed. Politicians apologised, albeit only to the blonde, blue-eyed woman who was too ill and traumatised by her incarceration to know or care. It took her family to speak out and remind Australians that it was not only their beloved sister and daughter who had suffered but many others who had no loving Australian families to rescue them.
As 2007 drew to a close, and another detention centre closed, hundreds of soldiers were camped on the hill above Baxter Detention Centre waiting to move in. They were in training to go to Afghanistan as part of the coalition of the willing. In the ultimate irony they were to sleep in the same rooms where young Afghanis who had fled the Taliban had been locked up. City detention centres will now house the dwindling number of asylum seekers.
However an even worse threat to human rights lurks. This is the half billion dollar detention prison built on Christmas Island. Being 2400 very expensive kilometres from Perth, public scrutiny has been reduced to a minimum. The tried and true techniques may well be resumed in this the highest security establishment ever built on Australian territory. Its CCTV cameras beam into ‘a remote control room’ in Canberra. Its electric doors, fences and gates are designed to contain and break the human spirit. Its compounds even include a ‘babies’ compound’ with a nursery with eight little cots lined up. In the adjoining rooms are wet and dry play areas and classrooms, all separated from the family compound. A hospital, with ‘resuscitation room’, is located within the complex. People detained here need never leave unless the government wills it. Without access to the courts and judicial oversight, away from media and the public gaze, people will truly be at the mercy of guards and government. Will this be Australia’s Guantanamo, where the ultimate partnership with the US torture system is played out? The answer lies with the Australian citizenry. Will they defy, deny or just stand by? The incoming Labor government has committed itself to a detention regime on Christmas Island.
Pamela Curr is Campaign Coordinator with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Melbourne: <www.asrc.org.au>.