Two years on and still no justice for Ms Dhu's family

August 11, 2016
Those seeking justice for Ms Dhu's family are not giving up.

On August 4 the family of Ms Dhu and their supporters marked the second anniversary of her death in police custody in South Headland with a rally outside Perth's Central Law Courts.

Ms Dhu's family is calling for an independent investigation into her death, as well as demanding the release of CCTV footage that shows her last hours alive in custody.

Ms Dhu, who was 22 years old at the time, had been detained for the non-payment of fines amounting to $3622, but died within two days of being taken into custody.

Prior to being detained, Ms Dhu had suffered a violent domestic violence incident resulting in broken ribs. During the 48 hours at the lockup, she made numerous complaints of pain and loss of sensation in her hands and feet, and requested medical attention. Ms Dhu was transferred to the local hospital three times during this period of time, however according to statements from police the hospital staff were assured she was a “junkie” who was “faking it”.

Dr David Speers, an expert in infections and microbiology, told the coronial inquiry that on the last transfer to hospital, Ms Dhu was showing symptoms of “severe infection and sepsis”, but after a chest ultrasound, a dose of diazepam — an anti-anxiety medication — and some paracetamol, she was declared fit to return to custody, where she subsequently died.

Nowhere is it recorded that Ms Dhu's temperature was taken on this last visit despite being a basic measurement to detect infection. According to Speers, if Ms Dhu had received antibiotic treatment during her third presentation to hospital, she would likely be alive today.

Shaun Harris is Ms Dhu's uncle. On behalf of the family he has been campaigning for two years for answers: He said: “The coroner is claiming that the CCTV footage is being kept back out of the public view because of the harm it might cause the family.

“We're here to say that we want it released. Otherwise this is a cover up; we know this is going to cause a storm just like what happened at the Don Dale detention centre up in the Northern Territory. These are not isolated incidents, this is what happens to our people when we are set to jails and lock-ups.”

Mark Newhouse from the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee WA, who has seen the CCTV of Ms Dhu in detention, told the ABC: “The footage is horrific. The level of just inhumane treatment of Ms Dhu is extremely disturbing; seeing her being dropped on her head. She was dragged ... by her limbs through the police station into the waiting police van rather than an ambulance. Australia needs to know what's going on behind closed doors.”

While some police officers involved in Ms Dhu's case have since left the job, none have faced criminal charges over her treatment while in custody. Two have since been promoted.

Ms Dhu's tragic death joins those of 96 other people who have died in WA Police and prison custody since the report by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was release in 1991. The Commission made 399 proposals to prevent another death in custody, but most of these have never been acted upon by consecutive state and federal governments.

Meanwhile there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Aboriginal people, women in particular, being arrested and jailed in Western Australia. More and more people are being crammed into lock ups and prisons, some like Ms Dhu for non-violent offences such as unpaid fines.

Harris told Green Left Weekly: “This isn't just about fighting for justice for my niece. This is for all of us. Unless there's real change, unless we get rid of the institutionalised racism and change the way things are done, no doubt soon enough there'll be another person dying in custody and then another. The only thing that can stop that from happening is if people come together to make it stop.”

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