Australia’s shame: ‘Abu Ghraib’-style images of children in detention triggers public inquiry

The ABC’s Four Corners current affairs programme shows footage of offenders, many indigenous, being stripped naked, tear-gassed and held in solitary confinement for weeks

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 1:57pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 10:01pm

Australia’s prime minister has launched a public inquiry after the broadcast of footage of children in detention being abused, hooded and bound in a manner likened to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) aired CCTV footage late Monday of inmates in a Northern Territory juvenile detention centre also being stripped naked, thrown by the neck into a cell, and held for long periods in solitary confinement.

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“Like all Australians, I’ve been deeply shocked - shocked and appalled by the images of mistreatment of children,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said as he announced a Royal Commission, Australia’s most powerful, state sanctioned inquiry.

“We’re going to move swiftly and decisively to get to the bottom of this.”

I’ve been deeply shocked - shocked and appalled by the images of mistreatment of children
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

The CCTV footage from the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin, shot between 2010-2014, raised not only the issue of child abuse but the treatment of Aborigines who make up 94 per cent of juvenile inmates in the territory. It was unclear how many of the boys in the video were indigenous.

In one scene that the Four Corners programme compared with images from Guantánamo Bay or the Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad, 17-year-old Dylan Voller was shown hooded and tied in a restraint chair for two hours.

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“Our (indigenous) people have known about things like this...and to just see it laid bare in front of us last night must be a wake-up call to everyone in Australia - that something’s got to be done about the way we lock our people up in this country, and particularly the way we lock our kids up,” an emotional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said.

“What we saw last night is an absolute disgrace.”

A report into some of the incidents by the Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner in 2015 found fault with the guards’ behaviour, but the findings were disputed by the then head of prisons and not acted upon, said the ABC.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles sacked his corrections minister within hours of the broadcast and said that information about the abuse had been withheld from him.

Giles said there has been a “culture of cover-up” within the Corrections system.

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“The footage we saw last night (went) back to 2010 - and I predict this has gone on for a very long time,” he said.

Other video footage showed guards mocking inmates, carrying a boy by the neck and throwing him onto a mattress in a cell.

“Excessive use of force, isolation and shackling of children is barbaric and inhumane,” said Human Rights Watch Australia Director Elaine Pearson.

The ABC reported that only two detention staff members identified in footage remained within the youth justice system.

“If one of us were to have been found to have treated our children in this way we would probably be charged with a criminal offence and the children would be taken away from us,” said Australia’s Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs, who backed the inquiry.

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“We have been reporting on this question of indigenous incarceration, particularly of juveniles, for many, many years and we have had many, many reports...on the appalling conditions in which they are held.”

The New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council demanded the Royal Commission include all of states and territories, as well as an examination of the over-representation of Aborigines in detention. Aborigines comprise just three percent of Australia’s population but make up 27 per cent of those in prison.

Additional reporting by The Guardian