Ms Dhu: another WA death in custody

Relatives of Julieka Dhu and other Aboriginal people who have lost family members in police and prison custody led a major protest at the G20 summit in Brisbane on 14 November.

This followed a National Day of Action in October for Ms Dhu, who died in a police cell in South Hedland, WA on 4 August. She was just 22 years of age.

Ms Dhu was locked up “paying down” around $1000 in parking fines. In the cells she became ill, vomiting and complaining of fever and paralysis in her lower body and later her face. Police allegedly mocked her and dismissed her cries as those of a “druggie”. Despite begging for medical attention and being taken to the hospital, she was never allowed to see a doctor.

Witness Malcolm Wilson said that when police took Ms Dhu to hospital for the last time they dragged her across the floor of the watch house. Ms Dhu’s partner, Dion Ruffin, who was in the cell next door, believes she died in her cell, not at the Hedland Health Campus as police claim.

The family has still not received basic information such as a timeline for the coronial inquest and were not permitted to have a representative at the autopsy.

WA currently has the highest rate of Indigenous incarceration in the world, with Aboriginal people making up 40 per cent of the prison population. The Barnett Liberal government’s “tough on crime” approach has exacerbated this crisis. The number of people in West Australian prisons for unpaid fines has soared 600 per cent in the past five years. Stopping incarceration for unpaid fines was a key recommendation of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Federally, whilst Abbott’s budget found billions to fund detention of refugees, Aboriginal legal aid in all states was slashed. Ruth Barson from the Human Rights Law Centre attributes this year’s 18 per cent increase in the incarceration of Aboriginal women to federal cuts and the “tough on crime” mentality.

Tragically, on the eve of the protests demanding justice for Ms Dhu, news emerged of another Aboriginal death in custody in WA, an apparent hanging suicide. And on 13 November, the family of Mark Mason, an Aboriginal man shot dead by police in Colleranerbri in northwest NSW in 2010, led a protest through the small town, disgusted at the lack of justice following a lengthy coronial inquiry.

By Geraldine Fela

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