Detained asylum seekers face further attacks

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BY SARAH STEPHEN

A spate of clashes in recent months between detention centre guards and imprisoned asylum seekers has led the Howard government to escalate its campaign to demonise, and further punish, detainees who protest against the conditions in detention.

Following a riot at Port Hedland detention centre on May 11, newspapers reported that a "cache" of weapons had been found in the centre, including "metal and concrete poles that could have been used as battering rams, and drink bottles filled with sand".

The June 9-10 Weekend Australian ran a large photo of several dozen items which were allegedly seized from detainees at Woomera just after a "mob of Middle Eastern refugees, allegedly armed with weapons fashioned from cutlery and gardening tools" "rioted" on June 7.

It has since been revealed that this was a deliberate beat-up by the government. The supposed weapons were collected over a period of three months, not just in the days following the riot. One of the items pictured was an implement used for making tea.

On June 28, federal parliament passed a range of amendments to the migration act. According to immigration minister Philip Ruddock, the legislation seeks to "...deter anti-social and violent behaviour by some immigration detainees".

The measures contained in the Migration Amendment (Immigration Detainees) Act 2001 will:

lMake it an offence for an immigration detainee to manufacture, possess, use or distribute a weapon.

lIncrease the maximum penalty for escape from immigration detention from two to five years.

lIntroduce additional security measures for visitors seeking to enter immigration detention centres (e.g., the use of screening or x-ray equipment to ensure items, such as weapons or aids for escape, are not brought in. If visitors do not comply with these measures, they may be refused entry).

The attacks on asylum seekers continued on July 3, when Saleh Omar Abdullah al-Saleh, a 29-year-old Palestinian computer technician from Syria, was sentenced in a Broome court to four years' imprisonment for his involvement in a "riot" at the Curtin detention centre last April.

The "riot" involved 200 people, and was one of the first protests quelled with tear gas. It resulted in the burning of buildings and $300,000 damage.

Al-Saleh, along with four Iranian men, was identified as one of the "leaders" of the protest. All five men face imprisonment. Al-Saleh has had his appeal for refugee status rejected.

Al-Saleh was charged with damaging commonwealth property and threatening guards. Ruddock explained that the maximum penalty for this offence was now seven years, and he was "not surprised" at the length of al-Saleh's sentence, predicting harsher sentences in future.

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