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Christine Milne: We must never send persecuted people back to their persecutors

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, speaks to an urgency motion in the Senate about the Abbott government's continued secrecy over the interception and transfer of asylum seekers.


Senator MILNE (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens) (16:16): I rise today to support this matter of urgency relating to the Abbott government's continued secrecy over the interception and transfer of asylum seekers on the Indian Ocean and the fate of 153 asylum seekers who remain unaccounted for. This is 153 people just like us. This is 153 people who are now in the custody of the Australian government. They have committed no crime. Seeking asylum is not illegal. They have been taken into the custody of the Australian government and they are imprisoned on a ship. We understand that they were intercepted, possibly in the contiguous zone, and then taken onto the high seas. We now have the farcical situation where the Australian government will be supplying that ship on the high seas-presumably from Christmas Island-in the hope that they will be able to send these people back to the people who have persecuted them. Sending the persecuted back to the persecutors is what this government is doing in Australia's name. It is shaming us internationally. People are looking at what we are doing and find it hard to believe that Australia could do it. But they have proof that we have done it because 41 people have been sent back-and, the minute they were sent back, they were put in the hands of the police and security forces in Sri Lanka.

I think it is time Australians had a really good look at what is happening in Sri Lanka and the Abbott government's appeasement of a country where the Rajapaksas are behaving like a dictatorship. They have already impeached their Chief Justice. Sri Lanka is being run as if it were a totalitarian dictatorship. I think Australians would like to know exactly what the relationship between the Liberal Party and the Rajapaksas is. Is it true, for example, that figures from the Liberal Party went to Sri Lanka and assisted in the campaign to have the Rajapaksas elected? I would be interested in hearing from the Liberal Party in Australia whether that is the case.

However, in relation to what their people are being handed back to, I draw the attention of the Senate and the community to a March 2014 report entitled An Unfinished War: Torture and Sexual Violence in Sri Lanka, 2009-2014, which wasauthored by the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales and the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka. It concludes:

Abduction, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual violence have increased in the post-war period. Targeted for these violations are LTTE suspects, or those perceived as having been connected to, or supporters of, the LTTE-
that is, the Tamil Tigers-

The purported aim is to extract confessions and/or information about the LTTE and to punish them for any involvement with the organisation. These widespread and systematic violations by the Sri Lankan security forces occur in a manner that indicates a coordinated, systematic plan approved by the highest levels of government. Members of the Sri Lankan security forces are secure in the knowledge that no action will be taken against them. This report establishes a prima facie case of post-war crimes against humanity by the Sri Lankan security forces, with respect to (a) torture and (b) rape and sexual violence.
Our own Public Interest Advocacy Centre, in their report Islands of Impunity? in the International Crimes Evidence Project, recorded accounts of two Tamil women who were raped during interrogation by the security forces in Sri Lanka in 2011 and 2012. That is what we have sent 41 people back to. They are in the hands of those people right now. As well, 153 others are on the high seas, effectively imprisoned by the Australian government. The only reason they have not be handed over is that the Sri Lankans have not yet picked them up in their ships. The question is whether they will or not-because they have come from India. What arrangement does Australia have with the Sri Lankan government? There is an interchange between the two countries. Does it include people who have been picked up in waters and sent back?

Let us get to this enhanced screening process. Enhanced screening started with the Labor government and we condemned it then. It was an attempt to get around the law. Interestingly, every time it was challenged, the Labor government dropped it because they knew that it would not stand up in the courts. And now we have got enhanced questioning from the Liberal government, in complete and utter violation of international law, with people not being properly represented and four questions being asked. It is a sham of a process and will be seen as such. The matter is now before the courts.

I went to Sri Lanka after the war to see for myself what was going on there. I was so alarmed by what I saw that I have continued to keep a serious count of what is happening. In my office I have a large painting called This is not a white van. It is written in English, in Sinhala and in Tamil. The reason I have it is people I spoke to in Sri Lanka told me people are being disappeared in white vans on a frequent basis. A British report entitled An Unfinished War: Torture and Sexual Violence in Sri Lanka 2009-2014-by Yasmin Sooka, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales and the International Truth and Justice Project in Sri Lanka-states:

The overwhelming majority of the witnesses were 'white vanned', a term now used in Sri Lanka to denote abduction by the security forces.
A quarter of the witnesses reported being abducted and tortured on more than one occasion.

There is still an enormous number of people in the military in Sri Lanka. In the north, people are being dumped back into areas where there is no infrastructure-it was destroyed during the war-and their land is being taken away and given to the military. We have seen shocking abuses of humanity in Sri Lanka by a government where four brothers run the country. They control the media, they have impeached the Chief Justice and they do not allow the kinds of representations that you would expect in a democracy. They are covering up, and allowing, absolute vilification and violence against religious minorities in Sri Lanka as we speak.

Australia did not sign onto the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution in a disgraceful display of appeasement of Sri Lanka; nevertheless, the UN got that resolution through. The Sri Lankan government will not allow the United Nations Human Rights Council to go into the country and have a look at what is happening there, yet our Prime Minister is saying what a jolly good job they are doing in Sri Lanka and how things have improved. I can tell you that things have not improved for anyone who stands up to the Rajapaksa regime. Regardless of whether you are Tamil or Sinhalese, if you stand up to the regime you will be 'white vanned'. That is the reality. We have already heard evidence from one of the 153 people on this boat that the regime had hung him up by his thumbs to force him to confess that he had in some way been associated with the Tamil Tigers.

What sort of country have we become when we have a government that is prepared to send persecuted people back to their persecutors? What sort of country have we become when we violate international law in such a disgraceful way?


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