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Chinese interrogation leads to compo payout

By Jewel Topsfield, The Age
March 11, 2009

A GROUP of asylum seekers interrogated by visiting Chinese security officials in Villawood detention centre in 2005 will be awarded more than $150,000 in compensation from the Australian Government.

The Age believes the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has recommended the Government apologise and award 26 former asylum seekers up to $9000 each, after it found the Immigration Department breached their human rights.

The Immigration Department confirmed it had started paying compensation. A spokesman could not comment further until the commission's report was tabled in Federal Parliament in the next two weeks.

The department arranged for the group, some of whom claimed to be members of the persecuted Falun Gong spiritual movement, to be interviewed by Chinese Ministry of Public Security officials to speed up their identification so passports could be issued for their deportation.

But lawyer Michaela Byers, who represents most of the group, said some were wrongfully asked questions that had nothing to do with their identity, including the details of their asylum claims.

"Some were threatened, they were told the officials would look up their relatives in China," Ms Byers said. "They recorded the interviews without the department's knowledge and without the detainees' consent."

Ms Byers said no Immigration Department officials had been present during the interviews to advise the Chinese detainees on which questions they did not have to answer. She said that since the interviews the Chinese had lived in fear of deportation and the effects on family members in China.

It is understood the department concedes its arrangements for supervision were inadequate and the process was flawed.

The Age believes former Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission president John von Doussa found it was legitimate for Immigration to arrange the interviews, but that the manner in which they were conducted breached the right of the group to be treated with humanity and dignity and their right to privacy under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

He is understood to say the department failed to adequately explain the purpose of the interviews and the identity of the interviewers. It also failed to prevent detainees being asked about their protection visa applications, knowing there was a possibility they may be at risk of persecution if they were returned to China.

Following the interview with the Chinese security officials, 18 of the group were held in so-called "separation detention" for up to 15 days. The commission is believed to find this was unnecessary and left the detainees distressed and frightened.

Ms Byers said 24 of the group had now been granted permanent residence in Australia. But she feared for two clients, who had not been heard from since being deported a couple of years ago.

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