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Issue #1725      April 6, 2016

Fight for justice

“So many police have blood-stained hands”

After watching CCTV footage of how police treated his niece Julieka Dhu before she died in custody and listening to officers testify at the coronial inquest, Shaun Harris feels disheartened and angry.

But, somehow, he and other family members find the strength to fight for justice.

They’re fighting for justice for Julieka – but it’s also a fight for basic human rights and against the institutional racism that Mr Harris knows killed his beautiful niece way too young. Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old Yamatji woman, died two days after being locked up at in South Hedland Police Station in August 2014 for unpaid fines totalling $3,622.

The inquest into her death resumed last month, after two weeks of hearing evidence last November. Ms Dhu’s grandmother Carol Roe said the family was devastated and frustrated that the government had not taken steps to prevent similar situations from occurring.

“Our girl should have never been locked up,” Ms Roe said. “She paid the ultimate price for bad laws and bad policies. My granddaughter should be with me today, rather than in the cemetery.

“The government must be held to account.”

Third visit

Ms Dhu died during her third visit in as many days to the Hedland Health Campus from staphylococcal septicaemia and pneumonia, following an infection in her fractured ribs that spread to her lungs.

The inquest has heard – and seen – that police assumed she was faking and that nurses and doctors failed to follow basic procedures, including taking Ms Dhu’s temperature.

“We’re still shattered from Julieka’s passing,” Mr Harris told the Koori Mail. “Julieka should still be still here.

“The facts are that the health system and the police are all in denial and very unwilling to face up to the consequences of their actions. All those people who were supposed to be taking care of Julieka while she was in government care are guilty – and they need to be held accountable.

“There’s been no justice for any black death in custody since Invasion – no accountability. The fact that there were so many people involved who had direct contact with Julieka while she was incarcerated, you would think from the sheer number that there would have been someone who took proper care of her.

“We want convictions. It’s so clear that’s the only way justice will be served, so Julieka can rest in some sort of peace. Everyone involved in Julieka’s death has blood on their hands.

“All the denial and blame shifting doesn’t change the fact that almost all the people involved neglected her on so many levels.”

Listening to police testimony has been harrowing for the family.

Some officers have conceded that they believed Ms Dhu was faking, right up until she died. Others have claimed they believed her cries of pain were genuine, but failed to explain why they didn’t follow proper police procedures or ensure she was given appropriate medical treatment.

Constable Christopher Matier testified that he’d handcuffed Ms Dhu and dragged her out of her cell to take her to hospital still believing she could be faking illness shortly before she died.

“I wasn’t entirely convinced that she couldn’t use her legs,” he said.

Constable Matier dragged Ms Dhu to the cell door and leaned her against his leg, knowing it would be difficult to drag her to the police van.

The officer said he asked Ms Dhu: “Are you sure you can’t get up because this is the way I’m going to have to take you?” He said she replied: “No, I can’t move my legs.”

In hindsight, Constable Matier accepted he should have called an ambulance but believed it would be just as quick for police to drive her. He said he first formed the view Ms Dhu was faking illness early in his shift, based on a conversation he overheard with his superiors.

In footage played in court, Constable Matier was heard asking another detainee if she had been screaming all night and if she was “trying to get out”.

“There’s no excuse,” Mr Harris said. “Police were clearly trying to take on the roles of nurse and doctor. Now, in their testimony, they’re quick to say, ‘I’m not a medical expert,’ but why stand up in front of a dying girl and tell her what to do?

“It’s not their role to give medical advice. It’s to make sure people get proper medical treatment and don’t just assume people are coming down off drugs.”

While the inquest is clearly difficult for the family, Mr Harris said they are finding solace and strength in the huge amount of support they’ve received in Australia and from overseas.

Huge audience

“With social media we’ve been able to share our story with a huge audience that we haven’t previously been able to tap into – that’s helping a lot,” he said. “It’s highlighting and exposing to the world how severely mistreated we are in Australia in this day and age.

“The level of racism in that courtroom, the ignorance and arrogance of everyone involved is so blatant. There’s no respect for the families at all.

“It’s not just the family who gasps out loud when they play the footage and hear the responses; it’s everyone in the gallery.

“I just want to thank everyone for their help and support.

“It’s been massive and we do take a lot of comfort in knowing that we have so many good people out there.

“We won’t stop fighting for justice for Julieka, or custodial reforms.

“Every death in custody affects the whole community, they have a massive ripple effect. In Julieka’s case, it’s gone global, which is finally about time – I just wish it didn’t have to come at the cost of my niece’s life.

“We don’t want what happened to Julieka to happen to anyone else.

“Apparently we have a world class health system in WA, but medical staff still allowed this to happen.

“So many police have blood-stained hands because of deaths in custody.

“Our supporters help us keep going and I can’t thank them enough.”

For more information and to show solidarity go to:#BuildCommunitiesNotPrisons

Koori Mail

Next article – Editorial – Oppose the govt’s reactionary agenda

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