Exclusive: inside the Manus Island riot

Vision and images obtained exclusively
by Fairfax Media reveal the violence unleashed by PNG guards on asylum
seekers detained on Manus Island in mid-February.

In my day job in the construction industry, I specialise in
alternative dispute resolution in the thriving gas pipeline sector in
Western Australia. By night, I get to follow my true passion as a human
rights advocate. I work with the men, women and children interned in the
Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island detention centres. I speak
with them daily, organise lawyers to represent them and co-ordinate
complaints on their behalf (complaints are taken more seriously if an
Australian lodges them). I sometimes put them in touch with journalists.

More than half of the people I work with have suffered
torture and/or trauma before seeking asylum in Australia by boat. They
are then detained indefinitely, without having committed a crime, in
conditions unduly harsh for even the most despicable murderer or
paedophile; conditions that lead about a third of asylum seekers to
attempt self-harm and/or suicide during their time in detention.

They can’t believe that we do this to pregnant women and newborn babies. But we do. 

Those who speak with me send me photos and testimonies and
beg me to have them published. They tell me they are under constant
threat of reprisals: from locals who taunt them by making the sign of
slitting their throats, and guards who they allege encourage them to
commit self-harm. Many feel a return to their homeland and the prospect
of being killed there is better than the uncertainty of indefinite
detention and possible death on Manus Island.

<i>Illustration: Kerrie Leishman.</i>
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman.

Over the past week, I have relived a dozen times the trauma
of the February attacks on the Manus Island detention centre. I
travelled to London, Paris and Geneva for eight days to tell the world
about what is happening on Manus. I organised interviews and meetings
with media, non-government organisations and international human rights

Every day, as I explained the circumstances of detention at
Manus, and as I showed photos sent to me by the men interned there of
the horrific injuries they sustained in the attacks, I felt like I was
there. I have read their testimonies so many times they are committed to
memory and I experience the scenes vividly. I see the attackers (I know
their faces from social media), I see the men being pulled from under
their beds and hacked with machetes or beaten with rocks and boots, and
it brings tears to my eyes. Every time.

After these meetings, I would often walk around aimlessly for
a while, staring into the distance. I rode the London underground from
Victoria to Walthamstow before realising I had gone seven stations too
far. I went to the theatre on my last night in London, but don’t really
remember the show.

The people I met were shocked and disbelieving of my version
of events. Until they saw the photos. Until they heard the voices of
asylum seekers speaking over the telephone from Manus Island about what
happened to them. Until they saw that everything we have reported since
one day after the attacks has been verified by the media and, to a large
extent, admitted by the government. Then they were horrified.

An audience of millions tuned in to engage with our BBC Radio
4 Today show package – the most listened-to news program on English
radio. Journalists, when they had the full situation explained and saw
the evidence for themselves, were eager to write about the Guantanamo
Bay of the Pacific: Australia’s national shame.

The meeting with the United Nations was the most important
but the hardest of all. The people I met with are hardened human rights
specialists who spend their days sifting through complaints alleging
serious crimes including extra-judicial killings, and even they were
shocked at what they heard and saw. The UN wanted more details than the
journalists and advocates I met with, I spent hours taking them through
the minutiae.

I can’t bring myself to listen to my own interviews, and I
don’t really read the news about asylum seekers any more. I skim the
headlines and know what’s happening. I speak with other advocates, with
sympathetic politicians and asylum seekers themselves, but reading the
news is too distressing. 

The government has brought about a siege mentality in asylum
advocates. We’re always on the back foot, always reacting rather than
anticipating. Always reassuring people they’re going to be OK, hoping
beyond hope our words are true.

I’m now working closely with the UN, human rights advocates
and non-government organisations to take the next steps to shame
Australia for its actions at the international level. I am working with
journalists around the world to make sure their readers and listeners
know what our government does to people who ask for our assistance.
Because when people hear the truth, they are outraged. 

They are aghast that Australia has institutionalised mental
torture on a massive scale, and facilitates the physical abuse of asylum
seekers by sending them to places with inadequate medical facilities
and an unacceptable risk of contracting malaria, dengue fever, cholera
or infectious diarrhoea. They can’t believe that we do this to pregnant
women and newborn babies. But we do.

Australia doesn’t have a bill of rights. The only
constitutional rights protections that we have are about voting,
religion, and equality before the law. But the Abbott government
recently removed access to legal aid for asylum seekers, so the last
guarantee has become ineffective.

What can we do? We can speak out. We can write to our local
members. We can tell our friends in Australia and overseas the truth
about what is happening at Manus. The same truth that has been reported
by Amnesty, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and countless
advocates. The truth that is communicated by brave men in detention at
great personal risk. The truth that the government denies and is trying
to suppress. The more we talk, the more pressure we place on the Abbott
government to act in accordance with international human rights

Until then, the men at Manus will continue to sleep in
shifts, because they are afraid of being attacked again.  Like me, and
all of us with a conscience, we are unlikely to get a good night’s sleep
until we put an end to mandatory detention in this country.

Ben Pynt is the director of human rights advocacy at Humanitarian Research Partners.

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