The Guardian April 10, 2002


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.

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