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Emergency Protest: against indefinite detention

SA-Ho Emergency protest: Six years and counting: protest against indefinite detention (Thurs)

There will be an emergency protest tomorrow (Thurs) calling for the release of Peter Qasim and the end of indefinite detention

Thursday 9th October 4-5pm Immigration Department Office, Hobart (cnr Collins & Harrington Sts)

Thursday 9th September 2004 will see a dismal anniversary marked across Australia, with the passing of six years in detention for a 30-year-old man from Indian Kashmir, Peter Qasim.

Peter was born Muhammad Qasim in a small village close to the "Line of Control" that serves as a de facto border between India and Pakistan in this disputed territory. His father disappeared when he was very young, presumably killed by the Indian security forces for his separatist political activities, and a few years later his mother died. A friend of his father took him into his home, but in 1992 Peter himself was detained by the security forces, and held for a week of brutal interrogation.

Traumatised, and afraid that he might be arrested and tortured again at any time, Peter fled the village, and managed to eke out a living and find shelter with sympathetic people in the surrounding district. He lived this way for 5 years, but after militants killed a high-ranking Indian army officer in 1997, he was afraid of being swept up in the subsequent crackdown, and decided to leave the country.

He ended up in Papua New Guinea, but after fourteen months struggling to survive with no legal status there, he crossed to an island in the Torres Strait in a tiny boat with three other people.

Australia's Department of Immigration accepted Peter's story, but decided that he wouldn't face ongoing persecution. After the Refugee Review Tribunal also rejected him, he escaped from Port Hedland detention centre and spent less than a day at large before being caught. He served three months in prisons in Perth, then was moved to the claustrophobic confines of the detention centre at Perth airport. In 2000, he spent four months intermittently hospitalised for severe depression. After stretches in the Curtin and Woomera detention centres, he has ended up in Baxter, near Port Augusta in South Australia.

In August 2003, Peter decided that even the risks he faced in India would be preferable to dying in detention in Australia. He wrote to the Minister for Immigration asking to be returned, and shortly afterwards applied for an Indian passport.

The Indian authorities demanded proof of his identity and nationality; Peter had none. He had had no official schooling, no driver's licence, no electoral registration. If records about him had ever existed back in India, nobody could find them. Unsurprisingly, the authorities also couldn't find anyone who'd admit to knowing this man who'd fled from the security forces.

Without any way to prove his identity, he was stuck in detention indefinitely.

Until recently, the Federal court had been releasing people into the community who found themselves in such a quandary, but on 6 August 2004 the High Court ruled that the Migration Act authorised detention for life for people who agreed to leave Australia but found it impossible. Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone declared soon after that she would act as a "safety valve" and ensure nobody was detained forever, but on 31 August she announced that she'd reviewed all the relevant cases, and Peter Qasim was not among those granted freedom.

Why not? The Department of Immigration claims that Peter has been uncooperative and inconsistent in his story. His file reveals a different problem: most of his processing has been conducted without interpreters, because Peter's crash-course in using English in PNG gave him a misplaced confidence, and the Department went along with his decision to speak for himself. Getting by in Port Moresby was not the same as dealing with official paperwork and interviews, and compounded by the Department's own clerical errors and the impossibility of cramming his complex story into the slots on various forms, this has created a mish-mash of seeming contradictions, though in reality Peter has done his best to tell the same true story all along.

Peter is admired by scores of detainees for the selfless assistance he's given them in their own battles with paperwork and bureaucracy, and valued by dozens of Australian friends for his extraordinary wit, intelligence and resilience. But nobody can face life imprisonment for no reason. As Peter once said, even Nelson Mandela in prison had the struggle for his nation's freedom to give him strength, but his own suffering serves no purpose for anyone. He is locked up, apparently forever, because of lost paperwork in India, and a file full of minor errors and misunderstandings in Australia.

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