Woomera: Protests, Senate inquiry hit Govt
by Janice Hamilton Outrage over the Howard Government's treatment of asylum seekers escalated with approximately 1000 protestors participating in the Woomera 2000 Easter Protests at the Woomera Dentition Centre in South Australia. The action started peacefully when a small group of protestors approached the perimeter fence to give toys and clothing to the detainees inside. They were met by Protective Services Personnel, the US-based private security company that guards the centre, and were ordered to move away from the centre and told not to come back. Later, as the protest group got larger they marched to the complex carrying banners and broadcasting music. They walked through two unlocked gates reaching the inner palisade fence shouting, "Freedom! Freedom!" One protestor commented "It was as if the gates have being left open to welcome us in." Of course, the detention centre security staff knew they were coming. A large group of asylum seekers had gathered on the other side of the razor fence when a group climbed over to meet the protestors and shake hands. Police have accused protestors of providing detainees with bolt cutters and other weapons to assist in their escape. They also claim the escapes were premeditated by protestors and that detainees were given a survival pack containing food when they got to the tents outside the detention centre in a deliberate attempt to encourage and incite further escapes. Inside, detention centre authorities tried frantically to call on assistance from the South Australian Police. Federal Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock attacked the SA Government for not reacting quickly enough to calls for assistance. Fourteen detainees are still fleeing for freedom. South Australian Police have caught 36 detainees who appeared in court last week to face federal charges. The maximum penalty for these so-called offences is five years jail, although Ruddock has stated that with the exception of one asylum seeker, they will be automatically deported once they have been to trial. The Minister issued a statement that the Federal Government will pursue anyone who is found to be housing or assisting the asylum seekers and charge them under a section of the Crimes Act dealing with conspiracy to contravene Commonwealth law. The maximum penalty under this charge is ten years imprisonment. Some demonstrators are now being charged with aiding and abetting an escapee, which carries a maximum four-year jail sentence. The Government has also implemented tough new penalties as part of its detention centre regime by last year raising the maximum jail sentence for escapees from three to five years. This reaction from Minister Ruddock comes as the South Australian Government prepares to mount a challenge to federal jurisdiction over detention centres by sending child protection officers into the Woomera centre. A number protests in Victorian, New South Wales and Western Australian detention centres have taken place in the last week and will continue until the Government is forced to change its inhumane program. Meanwhile, the Federal Senate inquiry into the children overboard cover-up continues, with Commander of HMAS Adelaide Norman Banks achieving the record of being the longest serving witness of any senate inquiry. He reiterated that no children were thrown into the water by the asylum seekers themselves or the Australian Navy. The inquiry's terms of reference were changed due to the allegation made by the former Ambassador to Cambodia, Tony Kevin. His submission asked the Senate to investigate the sinking of a boat in Indonesian waters in mid- October in which 353 people died. He stated that Australian authorities knew the boat was travelling towards Christmas Island, was overloaded and taking in water. He said that despite the policy of the Navy of intercepting such boats, a frigate wasn't dispatched. He asked if an Australian agent or agency might have been involved in events leading up to the boat's sinking.