Detainees at an Australian-run detention center on Christmas Island rioted this weekend following the death of a Kurdish Iranian refugee, setting fire to parts of the facility as guards fled early Monday morning, the New York Times reports.
Refugee advocates said that Australian federal police found 3o-something Fazel Chegeni’s body at the base of a cliff on Saturday after he escaped from the the Christmas Island detention centre, where about 200 men are being held, on Friday.
“People are very distressed,” Greens party senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, said in a radio interview Monday. “The reaction to this man’s death has been one of shock and one of horror.”
Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition, said Mr. Chegeni arrived in Australia in 2010, and had been granted refugee status. But the delay in processing his claim and releasing him had seriously affected him, Mr. Rintoul said. “His mental health problems were well known,” he said. “Detention could only exacerbate those problems.”
“Fazel should have been treated with decency and respect,” said Daniel Webb, a lawyer from the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne. “Instead he has become a victim of a blunt, arbitrary and tremendously cruel system.”
One detainee, 25-year-old Matej Cuperka, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the riot was started by ex-convicts who had their Australian visas cancelled after serving time in jail. The rioting inmates, he said, believe that Chegeni was killed by officers working for Serco, the contractor managing the facility.
“The death [of the Iranian man] is very, very suspicious,” Cuperka said. “I clearly heard him in the morning screaming for help, and the next thing I see they be bringing him in a body bag, and after that the whole place went into lockdown.
“About 30 people started a fight with the emergency response team in front of the medical [clinic] where officers left their stations and put the place in lockdown.”
However, a spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, Greg Barns, told the Times that he had spoken with a client on the island who said that damage from the riot was not widespread: “They are all suffering the deleterious effects of being held on a small, hot, wet, remote island, with nothing to do, and limited access to lawyers, no access to family.”
Christmas Island is a territory of Australia, 52 square miles in the Indian Ocean, about 220 miles south of Java.* About 50 to 60 New Zealanders are being held at the detention center awaiting deportation, Barns said, having failed tests of good character.
In a statement, Australia’s Immigration Department said that there was a “disturbance in progress” but that no injuries had been reported.
Riot police had arrived to restore order at the detention center, the Australian Associated Press reports. “There’s an operation under way,” Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Tuesday morning. “The government’s not going to cower in the face of the activities of some of these criminals.”
Chegeni’s death will be investigated by a coroner on Sunday. Christmas Island Shire president Gordon Thomson said that he believes Chegeni was “driven to his death” by his detention.