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2nd Zaoui Assault Investigation, Once Over Lightly

Last week the Crown argued for detained refugee, Ahmed Zaoui, to continue a term of indeterminate detention in a penal institution. Whilst detained in New Zealand penal institutions for the past 19 months Ahmed Zaoui has been the subject of a number of internal Department of Correction’s investigations. The internal investigations were sparked by complaints of brutality inflicted upon Zaoui by prison guards in the first two months of his residence in New Zealand.

2nd Zaoui Assault Investigation, Once Over Lightly


By Kevin List


Ahmed Zaoui: "I am a human being. I am not an animal; I am a professor."

In reports released under the Official Information Act Scoop has learned that a second investigation into prison assaults on NZ's most famous refugee Ahmed Zaoui looked only lightly into the numerous complaints against prison officers, concluding among other things that officers spitting into Mr Zaoui's food had done so as a "joke".

Earlier this week Scoop outlined the initial complaints concerning assaults at the hands of NZ prison officers.

On Wednesday Scoop addressed how these were dealt with according to information provided under Official Information Act requests. Yesterday Selwyn Manning described more recent instances of human rights abuses as witnessed by MP Matt Robson, Zaoui's lawyer Deborah Manning and as described by Mr Zaoui himself.

The initial investigation conducted by Principal Corrections Officer (PCO) Neale Howe was considered inadequate by the Department and a second fuller investigation was then carried out.

According to the Howard League for Penal Reform's submission to the Law and Order Committee on the recent Corrections Bill:

" Prisoners [who have complained of abuse] find that the officer about whom the complaint may be initially lodged, and who is the first prescribed person to deal with in the complaints procedure, is often unco-operative and obstructive in resolving the complaint… it is thus often the case that little satisfaction is obtained from the internal complaint procedure leading in some cases to prisoners being harassed by staff over complaints made. "

The initial investigation, sparked by complaints of brutality towards inmate Zaoui from his then lawyer Paul Coates, and conducted by Mr Howe recommended: “That there is no validity to the allegations supplied by Mr Coates. Hence no further investigations/disciplinary action takes place.”

The Report to the Regional Manager By T. Tohill & W. Miller-Burgering

Despite this solid assertion from PCO Howe, there was to be another investigation however. This second report was prepared for the Regional Manager, Auckland Regional Prison by T. Tohill and
W Miller-Burgering, both Unit Managers.

A principal concern of this second investigation seemed to be that the Department of Corrections handling of the complaints may eventually become public.

“Inmate Zaoui is a high profile inmate and any complaint/s need to be investigated in depth as the final report could be made public,” is point number one of the Regional Manager’s concerns arising from Mr Howe’s earlier investigations.

Also raised in the introduction to the report is the fact that no interpreter was used for interview with Mr Zaoui conducted for the PCO Howe report.

The report then lists a similar set of complaints that Howe’s report considered groundless

  • That Zaoui was attacked by a prison guard whilst two guards watched;

  • That Zaoui was not asked about this alleged attack during the first investigation by Howe;

  • That Zaoui was pushed harshly in the back mid December whilst in the toilet/shower area;

  • That Zaoui was denied access to the phone and mail;

  • That Zaoui was bullied in front of Dr Wahib Zaza;

  • That Zaoui had complained of racism and guards spitting in his food.
  • The allegation concerning a prison guard and an alleged assault related to an incident on 24 January 2003 and was the main allegation made by Coates. This incident was also mentioned in Dr Zaza’s letter and has been canvassed extensively in earlier Scoop reports.

    Assault and Kicking of Inmate Zaoui

    An illustrative example of how the second investigation proceeded was the Unit Managers’ reliance on a lack of physical evidence on the person of Zaoui as proof that his claims were groundless.

    “On reception of the second letter from Mr Coates, a thorough medical examination was conducted by a Prison Nurse and no injuries, that would have been easily noticed, were visible.”

    According to information from the Prison Inspector, Aumua and Dr Zaza’s letter of complaint the alleged assault on Zaoui occurred a week before the Nurse was able to examine him (the Nurse examined Zaoui after receipt of the second letter of complaint 31 January).

    The rest of the report continues in a similar vein.

    Interestingly some of the incidents that PCO Howe considered might have happened - such as Mr Zaoui being shoved by a Prison Guard are dismissed entirely in the second report

    Mr Zaoui Pushed About by D Block Guard

    Howe Report

    “Due to the inmate being new to the unit, not knowing the unit routine, and his limited understanding of English it is conceivable that an officer may have gone on to the landing to direct the inmate in the manner described by inmate Zaoui."

    Tohill/Burgering Report

    “There is no evidence apart from Zaoui’s statement to pursue…The date of this alleged offence is 18 December 2002, and staff that have been spoken to informally cannot remember any such event.”

    Alleged Harsh Treatment of Mr Zaoui In front of a Visitor

    When it comes to investigating harsh and intimidating treatment of Mr Zaoui in front of a witness (Dr Zaza) the reports also differ slightly.

    Howe Report

    “Mr Coates alleges via [name deleted/presumably Dr Zaza] that staff spoke harshly to Mr Zaoui. This is a case of interpretation. After speaking informally with some staff, they have acknowledged it is human nature to talk loudly with an inmate where English is a second language…with some staff, they have acknowledged it is human nature to talk loudly with an inmate that does not, “admit to speaking English”. That in itself is understandable.”

    Tohill/Burgering Report

    “The investigation team does not feel that the officer’s action amounted to assault or use of force.”

    From both reports it is clear that assault seems to be a tricky accusation to make stick – unless a la Abu Ghraib there is digital imagery.

    However even mental images of three guards' strip searching a naked Muslim man branded a terrorist by the media and politicians such as Winston Peters, should give cause for concern. Particularly given the immense wall of secrecy thrown up around Mr Zaoui's early months in New Zealand.

    That the Tohill/Burgering Report fails to find any evidence of an 'officer's action amounting to force' is hardly surprising. The accusation concerned intimidating Mr Zaoui. One does not need to 'take to' a prisoner with a wheel brace to intimidate them.

    No Telephone Calls To Mr Zaoui's Wife – No Mail From Mr Zaoui's Family

    In regard to the allegation of no telephone contact with Mr Zaoui’s family, the second investigation found that the Department of Corrections had not been able to verify numbers given to them after Mr Zaoui had been in custody for nearly two months.

    Guards Spitting in Mr Zaoui's Food and Racism

    The allegations of racism and a guard spitting in Mr Zaoui's food were made to PCO Howe when Mr Zaoui was interviewed in front of Howe and Prison Inspector, Aumua. However PCO Howe chose not to include any mention of these allegations in his report. In the executive summary of the later report to the Regional Manager, Tohill/Burgering came to the conclusion that:

    "There is no evidence to indicate that an officer spat into inmate Zaoui's food. Inmate Zaoui states that "this was a joke" between the officer and himself."

    It is hard to imagine what evidence Tohill/Burgering looked for. Presumably Corrections were not about to DNA test Inmate Zaoui's food bowls.

    It is now understood that due to concerns raised by Zaoui's counsel regarding harassment, one guard was moved from Zaoui's wing in mid 2003. The Tohill/Burgering report also alludes to one guard involved in the allegations of mistreatment not being interviewed.

    "Officer (name deleted) was not interviewed as he is currently (words deleted)."

    In conclusion both reports recommended :

    “Staff [to] be informed as soon as possible that they have acted professionally and thank them for their assistance.”

    It was noted - seemingly in some contradiction to the broad finding - in the final report that; “further work [should] be carried out to identify the possible risk to the department when inmates from other cultures may be reluctant to report their concerns/complaints due to fear of reprisal or retaliation."

    One other important recommendation of the Tohill/Burgering Report was:

    "Managers ensure staff have a comprehensive understanding of the strip search procedure and that their practice is consistent between staff and across the site."

    Considering the entire theme of both reports is that there was no wrongdoing whatsoever some questions are begged by these two recommendations.

    Why does the report think the strip search procedures should be made consistent? One conclusion could be that the procedures involving Mr Zaoui somehow deviated from the norm, perhaps.

    **** ENDS ****

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