Boat ‘scapegoats’ riot over heavy jail terms

August 30

DOZENS of Indonesian detainees who rioted at Darwin’s immigration detention centre were protesting against their legal treatment that includes mandatory jail sentences of up to 20 years.

Almost all are poor fishermen who were duped by people smugglers to steer asylum seeker boats into Australian waters. Their anger and frustration erupted into violence early yesterday after two men climbed a tree inside a compound at the centre where 97 Indonesians are being held.

As they refused to climb down, other detainees joined the protest, which escalated about 8am when rioters set fire to rubbish and mattresses they had piled in the grounds of the centre.

For several hours, 12 detainees refused to leave the roofs of demountable buildings, from where they yelled abuse. Some brandished two-metre long poles to stop guards climbing up.

Lawyers and several Northern Territory judges have described as an injustice the way the crew of asylum seeker boats are treated as people smugglers. Most of the real smugglers who paid the Indonesian crewmen a few hundred dollars to steer the boats remain in Indonesia, where there are no people-smuggling laws. In most cases, the crewmen were told they would be quickly sent back to Indonesia and were shocked to learn they instead faced long periods in jail in Australia.

The opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said: ”We’ve got a record population in detention, and these sorts of incidents are incredibly troubling, but not unexpected, when you’ve got so many people being detained.”

The doubt over who would form the next government made it ”inappropriate” to comment on what the Coalition would do to tackle over-crowding.

At one point yesterday, a metal chair was thrown from a roof. Some of the men took off their shirts and wrapped them around their heads. Screaming and banging could be heard from behind two high wire fences that surround the centre in the grounds of the Coonawarra Naval Base, on Darwin’s outskirts. Police eventually talked the detainees down.

Investigators will view security footage before considering charges. At the height of the disturbance, Afghan asylum seekers were evacuated from an adjoining compound.

An official confirmed the Indonesians were protesting about their legal treatment. People convicted over a boat carrying five or more people face a maximum 20 years’ jail, a fine of $220,000 or both, penalties as harsh as for murder. The minimum sentence for first-time offenders is five years’ jail with a three-year non-parole period.

Of 171 Indonesians facing people-smuggling charges on the Australian mainland, 169 are in detention in Darwin.

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