Villawood fire trials—still waiting for justice

There was a myth perpetuated by the official inquiry into the Christmas Island protests in March and April last year—that the protests were a result of disgruntled failed refugees at risk of being returned to their home countries.

It was always a convenient lie pushed by the government’s hired gun—so-called independent reviewer, Dr Allan Hawke (who infamously was Secretary of Defence during the Howard government’s Children Overboard scandal). And it turned attention away from the real causes of the protests: the failures of the refugee determination system and the cruelty of mandatory detention.

The same thing was said about the protests and fires at Villawood. Newspaper reports noted that asylum seekers had been transferred from Christmas Island and said that those in the compound set on fire, “are detainees who have usually had their applications to remain in Australia rejected”.

That too was a lie. Now the truth is slowly being squeezed out as the trials of those charged with the fires at both Christmas Island and Villawood come before the courts.

But it is taking an excruciatingly long time. The Villawood fires happened in April 2011—almost a year ago—and the trials are still months away. As the saying goes—justice delayed is justice denied—and justice is certainly being denied.

Altogether 16 Villawood detainees have been charged with riot, affray, causing damage by public disorder, causing damage by fire and damaging Commonwealth property. But 13 of the 16 have now been granted bail.

We were told that these were the ring leaders, but the Commonwealth has contested bail in only one case. And the court granted bail anyway; saying three things: The Commonwealth case was weak, there have been unnecessary delays in the progress of the trial and that even if the asylum seeker was convicted, any sentence was likely to be less than the time he had already been kept in prison!

Because the Minister of Immigration still has the final say on whether or not those who get bail are released, the 13 granted bail are not in the community but back in Villawood detention centre.

Nonetheless, it is some relief. The prolonged time in prison has eaten away at the physical and mental health of those charged.

Despite the claim that the Villawood protesters were “failed refugees”, the truth is that four of those charged have already been found to be refugees. The others are still waiting for the results of IMR decisions or Federal Magistrate Court decisions.

Ian Rintoul

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