By Selwyn Manning – Scoop Co-Editor
New Zealand’s reputation as a fair and egalitarian society continues to erode as revelations emerge of ongoing prison abuse of refugee Ahmed Zaoui. While we await a High Court ruling on whether Mr Zaoui ought to be transferred or bailed from remand prison, disturbing detail has emerged revealing abuse that has dogged this man’s New Zealand experience from the day he arrived. Here for the first time Scoop publishes excerpts of Ahmed Zaoui’s account of being behind bars and awaiting the outcome of his asylum applications...
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Questions to ponder: Do you find what you are about to read acceptable considering the alleged abuses occurred by the hands of New Zealand government agencies? Is this a standard to be accepted from a self-respecting country that deems itself civilised? Is what you are about to read fair treatment of a man who has been deemed to be a legitimate refugee with just cause to fear for his life? Scoop is keen to hear what you think, click here to issue feedback…
A Scoop special investigation has discovered cover-ups over alleged prison brutality (see… Zaoui Prison Assault Investigation Cover-Up ) and a culture of ‘dehumanising’ taunts by prison guards that appear designed to psychologically agitate. In this latest instalment detailing the Ahmed Zaoui case Scoop presents for the first time Ahmed Zaoui’s account discovered within a sworn affidavit, lodged before the High Court of New Zealand.
Ahmed Zaoui has been held in New Zealand prisons, without charge, since his arrival in December 2002 while a review of a security risk certificate issued by the Security Intelligence Service takes place.
Ahmed Zaoui sought refuge in New Zealand believing it to be a fair country, independent in the world, and a country that promoted justice.
First, Zaoui was detained at Papakura Police Station cells where he was given little food and lost nine kilograms in weight over nine days. He was then transferred to the notorious D-Block at Auckland Regional Prison, Paremoremo. There he was subjected to solitary confinement within the harshest detention regime New Zealand has engineered.
And it showed.
For ten months, Ahmed Zaoui was locked up within a small cell for 23 hours a day, seven days a week – he was allowed to walk for one hour a day within an empty corridor on a landing deep inside Paremoremo prison. There Ahmed Zaoui was forbidden to speak to or be near other inmates. He was not allowed to see the light of day - according to the Corrections Department, for fear a helicopter would airlift him to freedom.
“One of them wrote ‘TERRORIST’ next to my name on the landing chart.”
In a sworn affidavit, Ahmed Zaoui says: “My time in solitary confinement in Paremoremo Prison was a personally devastating experience for me… When I first arrived there I was physically and verbally abused by staff. Initially it was obvious that the guards believed I was connected to terrorism in some way. One of them wrote ‘TERRORIST’ next to my name on the landing chart.
“Initially, the guards tried to find ways to upset me or provoke me into reacting. One Friday after I returned from court, one of the guards ordered me to strip naked. He then forced me to squat and while I was doing that he started to kick my legs further apart. I couldn’t understand what he wanted me to do. I was naked, which was very humiliating. Then, the guard took my underpants and threw them at my face. I was upset and picked them up and threw them on the flood. This upset the guard and he grabbed me, twisted my arm and pinned me up against the wall. I started crying and said, in my broken English, ‘I am a human being. I am not an animal; I am a professor’.
“That was a very black day for me,” Ahmed Zaoui wrote.
It was around this time that Ahmed Zaoui was visited by a member of the Algerian community. Dr Zaza sought and was granted a security clearance and became a regular visitor. While visiting, Dr Zaza was horrified at the way guards treated Ahmed Zaoui. At one visit, the two were in conversation. A guard was present at all times. At one point the guard briefly left. He returned with two other guards, grabbed Ahmed Zaoui by the collar and dragged him from the room. Dr Zaza’s protestations were met with ‘visiting time is over’. And that, is how the guards in Paremoremo communicated with the man they decided was a “TERRORIST”.
Prison officials received complaints from Dr Zaza and others. Finally the guards found to be responsible for the taunts and abuse were reassigned to alternative areas - away from Ahmed Zaoui’s section.
But the conditions remained.
“I was not given any paper, pens or books,” Ahmed Zaoui said. “I could not read my Koran. I was prohibited from making telephone calls, whether abroad or within New Zealand… In July 2003, I suffered a number of panic attacks where I thought I was about to have a heart attack, due to the pressure I was under. I am naturally an optimistic person, but for awhile in solitary confinement I only saw darkness, and grew depressed.”
Two Members of Parliament visited Ahmed Zaoui: Keith Locke and Matt Robson were both concerned at what they saw.
As a former Minister of Corrections Matt Robson was disturbed to find the very department he had governed until only a year previously was acting in a way alien to minimum standards set by the United Nations human rights conventions.
This week Robson told Scoop: “Officers at quite a senior level told me they were concerned that he had been badly treated. And that some of the people (prison officers) had been removed from having contact with him.”
Matt Robson is well known for his social justice ideals and is popular among Auckland’s immigrant community as an advocate on immigration matters.
Ahmed Zaoui’s condition worried Robson: “We actually have a problem inside the Corrections system with a number of officers in making sure they treat inmates appropriately - this bad attitude being a hang-over from the past. And when they were advised they had a dangerous terrorist and a bad man it also showed up. When you turn people into sub-human - which is what occurred here - then a number of people, officers, felt they had a licence to depart from lawful treatment that they were/are required to carry out.
“I am not saying it was a situation like in Iraq, but you can see the germs of how people believe they become authorised to act in this way toward people who are considered inferior,” Matt Robson said.
The New Zealand experience suggests this country is far from a soft touch as New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has suggested. Indeed in a letter to New Zealand Immigration, dated September 16 2003, one of Ahmed Zaoui’s lawyers, Richard McLeod, wrote: “We point out that no other country has treated Mr Zaoui so harshly. In Switzerland he was allowed to freely move about, albeit with conditions and in Belgium he was allowed to live at home with his family.”
The fact that Ahmed Zaoui is held in New Zealand without charge is abhorrent in Robson’s view: “Exactly, and therefore there is an even higher level of responsibility to ensure as much as possible he is treated in that way. That he is held on security grounds, none of which have been proved, no crime has been charged against him, and yet he is held in a penal institution.”
This case raises the curtain on the great New Zealand myth: “I have taken a lot of time over this case,” said Robson “because I want New Zealand to have the foremost record in the world on human rights.
“But when we have been tested we have acted shamefully toward a political leader who was the victim of persecution and oppression, and we have put him through mental torture. And that says that we will sink lower with regard to other people. It is not the first time in our history: we kept Jewish people out during the Holocaust, we kept people who were seeking refuge from Timor out in the time of Don McKinnon. So it is time for New Zealand to have a good look at itself and start putting itself to the test at how it treats people on human rights. If it came to the test we have violated ourselves on human rights and we are still violating the human rights of Ahmed Zaoui,” Matt Robson said.
After nine months, Corrections officials began to relax Ahmed Zaoui’s conditions, albeit slightly. His 23 hour a day lock-up was eased, he was able to have limited contact with other inmates: “Through a grill, we would crouch on the flood and try to play chess through the bars. I was finally permitted outside in the fresh air.”
It was at this time Ahmed Zaoui’s lawyers arranged for a psychologist’s examination to be done. Underlying symptoms of anxiety, depression and physical problems were diagnosed.
“Now,” Ahmed Zaoui says “I cannot even bear to think back to my time in Paremoremo. It is a black hole in my memory that brings me back very bad memories and makes me upset.”
His asylum still remains an uncertainty.
On October 16 2003, Ahmed Zaoui was transferred to Auckland Central Remand Prison neighbouring Mt Eden Prison.
Ahmed Zaoui writes in his affidavit: “Being in prison at Auckland Central Remand Prison (ACRP) only reinforces the terrible times I suffered while in solitary confinement at Paremoremo Prison.
“When I think back to the 10 and a half months in that prison, I remember the days were dead, full of darkness and silence. I could not see the sun, nor the stars and I almost forgot about the moon. I tasted different types of suffering which I did not know before. It was days and nights empty of everything. Nothing was with me except my belief in our God. I felt as if this ten and a half months was a page ripped from the book of my life,” Ahmed Zaoui wrote.
And now, At ACRP he is allowed four visits a week with three people at a time. He has pens and paper and is allowed ten books a week. He has been granted phone call rights to family. And he is learning to speak and write English.
But after every visit, Ahmed Zaoui is subjected to strip searches: “This is a humiliating process, and especially I difficult because of my culture.”
He is locked in his cell from 6pm until 7am daily. His cell is small. It is a lonely place. It is cold. There is no heating in the cell.
On March 29 2004 Ahmed Zaoui was prevented by prison officers from bringing legal papers to his visit with lawyer Deborah Manning. When she spoke to the visits officer she was told it would take 45 minutes for Mr Zaoui to be taken back down and brought back with the papers – by which time visiting times would be over. Other lawyer visits were arranged but prison officers did not present Ahmed Zaoui. Other visitors were merely turned away without explanation, despite previously authorised approval having been granted.
The prison had restricted Ahmed Zaoui’s meals to vegetarian dinners. In a letter to Auckland Central Remand Prison dated April 14 2004, Deborah Manning complained: “Mr Zaoui still has not received any chicken or fish meals – despite on March 4 2004 management agreeing… that this could be arranged. Six weeks have now passed and nothing has been arranged.”
During Ramadan, Ahmed Zaoui religion requires him to eat only after the sun has set. Prison officers however refused to give him food outside the scheduled times: “I only received one meal a day, very late at night and it was very poor quality. As a committed Muslim I failed to receive the spiritual nourishment that this special month brings.”
On Friday March 4, Ahmed Zaoui’s lawyer Deborah Manning observed that he was down. She attended a meeting with prison management to try and finalise a case management plan.
Late that afternoon, some prison officers entered Ahmed Zaoui’s cell. He was confused as to what was happening. He was forcibly manhandled, taken to a ‘special needs unit’, stripped to his underwear and left in a room without any knowledge of why this had occurred.
He figured that New Zealand was preparing him for deportation. Fear rose, knowing his country of birth has a death sentence against him and rival organisation, the GIA, has a death notice on his head. Fear and recollection of brutality returned to him.
Ahmed Zaoui was tortured at the hands of the Algerian military regime. One event occurred in 1986 when he and his wife went to the airport intending to take a recreational flight to France. Ahmed Zaoui was taken away in handcuffs, blindfolded, intimidated, interrogated, yelled at, had contaminated water forced down his throat, and was burned with a blow-torch on both arms. After one week he was released.
And here in those hours locked alone inside the ‘special needs unit’ at Auckland Central Remand Prison, believing he was being prepared to be deported, memories of this torture, it would be certain, came flooding back to him.
“They took away my socks and all my clothes and left me in my underwear which was very impolite. They said they had to do this in case I tried to hang myself. I was very, very cold.
“I wanted to go back to my unit as this is the place I have been for four and a half months and I do not need to be in the Special Needs Unit,” Ahmed Zaoui said.
He was denied seeing a duty psychologist, and his lawyers were barred from visiting him.
In desperation, Deborah Manning called Matt Robson, who as a Member of Parliament has the right to demand visitation rights.
Matt Robson: “It was another episode of disgraceful treatment of Mr Zaoui in our prison system. His lawyer had mentioned that he was a little down which is normal if you have spent that long in prison. And she just mentioned this (to prison officials) and asked for certain things. It was then translated, as they wanted to translate it, into ‘this man was going to harm himself’.
“His own lawyer was not called. The psychologist treating him was not called… he was put through a humiliating routine of striping him, then putting him in isolation, but also left him in a traumatic state because he had every reason to believe this was a prelude to sending him out of New Zealand and that of course caused him much distress.
“There was no need for this treatment. It was inhumane. And I spite of the fact that this has all come to light, nothing has been done to examine the steps that allowed this to occur,” Matt Robson said.
Faced with the former Minister of Corrections demanding to see Ahmed Zaoui, prison officers quickly retrieved him from the unit.
“Every step was taken to make sure I did not have cause for complaint during the time I was there.
“But talking to Ahmed he was able to tell me of the enormous distress and how he felt, that he was possibly being shipped off. And while I talked with him a prison officer was there the whole time, which isn’t a usually situation. Actually I have demanded that they not be there. But this time I left it, because one: there was nothing to hide, and two: I really wanted to talk to him without taking it any further and causing a scene or a drama over the issue. But it was a most unfortunate and disgraceful episode in this whole scenario I think,” Matt Robson said.
Meanwhile at the opposite end of New Zealand’s North Island, Parliament was charged with counting the costs of keeping Ahmed Zaoui in prison.
New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters, has long taken an anti-immigrant stance, on April 7 2004 he asked Corrections Minister Paul Swain: “Why is the Minister seeking refuge behind the Refugee Status Appeals Authority when, because of the convention, this man should never even have got there in the first place to begin his long and troubled journey of tackling every official security agency of this country at our and the taxpayers’ expense, when he is a terrorist and a fraudster?”
Paul Swain answered: “I am not hiding behind the Refugee Status Appeals Authority. The reality is that there is a security risk certificate out, and it will be reviewed at some stage. That is the process that is happening at the moment.”
Back in the real world, in the letter to Auckland Central Remand Prison dated April 14 2004, Deborah Manning raised further concerns of prison irregularities: “We regret to advise that on the whole we find the unit Manager difficult to deal with and we have previously expressed this to management. He appears to resent Mr Zaoui being given any kind of different treatment, and makes this plain in our dealings with him…
“Finally, we reiterate our concern that this letter of complaint does not result in Mr Zaoui being criticized by ACRP staff – as has happened in the past,” Deborah Manning wrote.
Corrections Department top psychologist, Dr Ronnie Zuessman wrote in an affidavit of his talks with Ahmed Zaoui: “He referred to having authored an as yet unpublished 1000 page academic manuscript in Arabic about the politics of North Africa and the Middle East. Mr Zaoui was asked to describe the worst part of his experience while being detained at Paremoremo, and he replied ‘Isolation… and the gaze of guards… I felt all New Zealand was against me. I couldn’t speak with anyone about my feelings. I didn’t understand what was happening, why I am in prison, why no justice. In Algeria the judge sometimes comes into court with a mask to be anonymous. But there they read out the charge, so you know what it is.’”
Dr Zuessman continued: “Mr Zaoui was asked what he wanted to do in New Zealand, and he indicated that he came to New Zealand to establish a place to live with his wife and children. ‘I want to live my life, just like you. I am suffering as my wife and children are. I want a normal life for my children. If I have choice, it is New Zealand because of its isolation, far away from Algeria… and it doesn’t have strong influences of Islamists, like in England.’”
Over time, Ahmed Zaoui underwent 60 hours of evaluative personality and psychological tests.
“Shortly after returning to answering test items,” Dr Zuessman said “Mr Zaoui described some difficulty concentrating, accompanied by fatigue. He then broke down, sobbing deeply, recollecting his experience ‘in solitary’ at Paremoremo. Mr Zaoui reported numbness on the left side of his face and dizziness. A short break in responding to the questionnaire ensued. Mr Zaoui expressed embarrassment and acknowledged that he typically held feelings down inside, and did not show them… even to the extent that he did not want to burden family or lawyers… He recited that he should ‘be strong, like a mountain, not like a tree.’ This was an expression that emphasised the value of remaining steadfast and to endure unmoved over a long period of time, and not be swayed by the events of the day. Mr Zaoui was then able to return to completing the questionnaire.”
Dr Zuessman testified at the Auckland High Court under cross examination that in his professional opinion Ahmed Zaoui poses no risk to New Zealand and ought to be transferred to a place other than a prison or to be granted bail until a review of the security risk certificate concludes.