Dozens of former immigration detainees suing Australian Govt

More than 60 former detainees are suing the Commonwealth for alleged injuries received during their incarceration in former South Australian and other immigration detention centres.

Jun 03, 2019, updated Jun 03, 2019
Baxter detention centre. Photo: AAP / Tom Miletic.

Baxter detention centre. Photo: AAP / Tom Miletic.

Iranian-born Renown Park man Payam Saadat, 43, is suing the Australian Government over personal injuries he claims to have suffered at Baxter detention centre in South Australia, and Curtin detention centre in WA.

Both facilities are now closed.

He is among more than 60 former immigration detainees who have similar ongoing claims against the Commonwealth and private companies it contracted to run Australia’s detention centres, according to a judgment of the Supreme Court published last month.

Saadat’s case was described in an earlier judgment as the “lead case” in the cohort, the results of which would help inform the negotiation of settlements in the dozens of other cases.

The Commonwealth disputes that his case was intended to assist in the resolution of the other matters, and has lodged an appeal partly on that basis.

In mid-2000, armed Iranian officers arrested Payam Saadat at his workplace and took him to a prison, where he was repeatedly interrogated, beaten and tortured over days, his most recent statement of claim in the case says.

He was released from the prison ahead of a trial – in which he faced 25 years’ imprisonment or execution – and fled to Malaysia.

He stayed there for about two months before boarding a boat, captained by a 12-year-old boy, bound for Australia, according to the court document.

It reads that the voyage lasted 29 days, during which the boat broke down twice and began to sink, and that he endured six days without food or water before the Australian Government intercepted the vessel at Ashmore reef on December 22, 2000.

Sadaat was detained at Curtin until late 2002 before being transferred to Baxter, where he was held until April 2005.

He claims, among other issues, that during his time in immigration detention:

  • He attempted suicide and yet was not offered treatment by a psychiatrist – although a mental health team saw him.
  • He was strip searched five or six times a day in what is described as “the Management Unit” at Curtin.
  • He suffered mental illness but feared complaining about it because lest be be taken to the Management Unit.
  • He suffered various medical problems including insomnia.
  • Curtin detention centre was overcrowded, with 20 to 30 other detainees sleeping in one room and one television between 1500 people.
  • He had to endure the indignity of guards at the centre referring to him by a number, rather than by his name, and taunting him, saying that he would be deported back to Iran.
  • Guards tried to stop him from sleeping or speaking with an adjoining detainee by banging batons against his cell.
  • He witnessed many other detainees self-harming.
  • His room was destroyed in a fire and he witnessed frightening riots.
  • He dug a tunnel, over a period of about seven days, to escape the centre because he was told that he could be deported within 24 hours.
  • He suffered depression and despair as a result of repeated rejections – by the refugee review tribunal and by successive courts – of his application and appeals for a temporary protection visa, which was eventually granted in 2005 and he was released.
  • In a single month – August 2003 – his application for appeal to the High Court over his visa was rejected, he attempted suicide and best friend, Reza, was repatriated, causing him grief, loneliness and despair.

Saadat launched proceedings against the Commonwealth in early 2012 and the case has had a complicated procedural history since.

In March this year, Supreme Court Justice Tim Stanley granted leave for Saadat to lodge a fifth statement of claim – containing the complaints about his detention summarised above.

The statement asserts that the Commonwealth knew or ought to have known that Saadat suffered psychiatric injury when he was transferred to Baxter and did not take action to alleviate the risk of further psychiatric injury.

Claims that Saadat had also been subject to assault, battery and false imprisonment during his time in immigration detention were present in his fourth statement of claim but absent from his fifth.

Saadat had terminated his retainer with senior counsel in August 2018.

Having found new legal representation – from Adelaide firm Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers – he had applied for permission to file the latest statement of claim, which calls for damages for mental and physical harm, and distress, loss of past and future earning capacity, pain and suffering, aggravated damages and exemplary damages.

The Commonwealth argues the fifth statement of claim effects major changes to Saadat’s case, but Justice Stanley disagreed.

Apart from one complaint of “feeling depressed” on 16 January 2003, the plaintiff repeatedly denied having any mental health issues at Baxter

The Government, along with two of the former detention centre contractors, argued that the “late change in direction” would cause them substantial prejudice.

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Saadat’s counsel acknowledged before the judge that his claim would be unlikely to succeed without the proposed amendments.

The Commonwealth is applying to appeal Stanley’s pre-trial orders, on the basis that he erred in finding that the trial was intended to assist in the resolution of the other cases, and in accepting a new expert report.

In its defence to Saadat’s fourth statement of claim, the Commonwealth said that it contracted with a number of doctors, psychiatrists, counsellors, mental health nurses and visiting psychiatrists in order to provide health services at both Baxter and Curtin.

The document says that, according to one of the prison contractors, “there were insufficient objective or clinical signs exhibited by (Saadat) between 22 September 2002 and 19 January 2004 to warrant consultation with a psychiatrist”.

“Apart from one complaint of “feeling depressed” on 16 January 2003, the plaintiff repeatedly denied having any mental health issues at Baxter when asked by its mental health nurses, doctors and counsellors,” it reads.

Further, the Commonwealth says it knew of and approved strip searches conducted by the prison contractors – as well as the allocation of a unique identifying number to detainees for record keeping purposes – and does not know why Saadat refused to attend a medical clinic on two occasions in 2003.

It also says that Saadat was medically screened in December 2000 and showed no physical signs to suggest he was a risk of suicide or self harm, or any other behaviour suggestive of a psychological condition.

In addition, the Commonwealth says Saadat was medically assessed in January 2001, as not having any mental condition that may affect his ability to earn a living or care for himself, and that in August 2002 he expressed concern about the condition of his detention, but sought no followup, and “indicated he would present himself for further assessment as required”.

The issue of the Commonwealth’s permission to appeal, and the appeal itself have been referred to the Full Court of the Supreme Court for a hearing “as soon as practicable”, according to the latest judgment.

A spokesperson for Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers declined to comment.

The Department of Home Affairs also declined to comment, as the matters are before the court.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call LifeLine on 13 11 14 – or you can call the Mental Health Triage Service / Assessment and Crisis Intervention Service on 13 14 65.

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