Australia prisoners with disabilities abused: HRW

Human Rights Watch report details how people with disabilities suffer sexual and physical abuse in Australian prisons.

    People with disabilities are at “serious risk” of being sexually and physically abused in Australian prisons, and are disproportionately held in solitary confinement, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

    The damning investigation, published on Tuesday, examined 14 government and private prisons in the states of Queensland and Western Australia, detailing experiences of sexual and physical abuse, as well as the treatment of prisoners with disabilities.

    The report found instances of prisoners living in nappies (diapers) due to lack of adequate toilets.

    “It confounds me that in modern Australia a prisoner with a physical disability would have to wear a nappy simply because there is only one suitable toilet – and it is located in an infirmary,” Elaine Pearson, Australia’s head of Human Rights Watch, said.

    The report also found high levels of solitary confinement among those living with disabilities.

    Prisoners with pyschosocial or cognitive disabilities were found to be disproportionately placed in solitary confinement, at times for up to 22 hours a day. This had a “devastating” effect on the prisoners, HRW said.

    One man with a cognitive disability was found to have been in solitary confinement for 19 years, the report found.

    When approached for data, the state of Western Australia said it did not record specific data on the numbers of prisoners with mental health disabilities being sent to solitary confinement.

    The HRW investigation is based on interviews with 275 people, including 136 current or recently released prisoners with disabilities. HRW documented 32 cases of sexual violence, allegedly perpetrated by other prisoners and staff. It also documented 41 cases of physical violence.

    “They are perceived as weak by other prisoners and are routinely bullied and harassed, particularly for their medication,” lead researcher Kriti Sharma told Al Jazeera.

    Pearson called on Australia’s states to better train prison staff in recognising cognitive disabilities, and to hold independent inquiries into the use of solitary confinement. 

    She also called for the independent inspection of facilities.

    While Western Australia had an independent inspector, that was the exception, rather than the rule, she said.

    The report said reforms were needed regarding how prisoners were screened to detect disabilities when first entering prisons.

    Lack of communication, especially between Aboriginal prisoners and prison staff, was identified as a key issue. A 2010 study found that up to 94 percent of indigenous inmates in Northern Territory jails experienced some form of hearing loss, but was frequently unaccounted for.

    Aboriginal prisoners especially affected

    While fewer than three percent of Australians are Aboriginal, official data shows that indigenous people make up more than a quarter of the prison population. 

    Aboriginal people who are sent to prison are more likely to be living with a cognitive disability, according to Damian Griffits of the First Peoples Disability Network.

    “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience disabilities at a much higher rate than the rest of the population,” Griffits told Al Jazeera.

    “If you’re an Aboriginal person in parts of remote Australia with pyschosocial disabilities you’re more likely to end up in the back of a paddy wagon (police truck) than to receive help for your disabilities,” he added.

    The report comes on the back of a Royal Commission into the detention of youth in Australia’s Northern Territory last year.

    That inquiry was prompted by the release of shocking footage that showed mostly Aboriginal teenagers being tear gassed while confined in prison, as well as being held in sensory deprivation “spit hoods”. 

    HRW’s Pearson singled out the states of Western Australia and Queensland for being “open enough” to allow access to prisons for the report’s research.

    In a statement, the Queensland government said it was implementing the recommended reforms found in a parole review report and developing a 10-year plan, which would encompass issues of disabilities among prisoners.

    Western Australia said staff receive training in handling prisoners with mental health issues, including in-person training on working with people with disabilities in prisons, as well as online modules.

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    Australia to revive island detention centre

    Australian PM Scott Morrison says he will re-open a controversial detention centre on Christmas Island, after a historic defeat in parliament.

    On Tuesday, non-government MPs secured enough votes to pass a bill making it easier for sick refugees held offshore to be treated in the country.

    Mr Morrison said the law would weaken the nation’s tough border policies and embolden human traffickers.

    Opponents accused him of spreading fear before an impending election.

    Since 2013, Australia has sent asylum seekers arriving by boat to detention centres on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru.

    It previously also sent detainees to Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean which is about 2,600km (1,600 miles) from the mainland and 300km south of Indonesia.

    The UN has criticised Australia’s detention policies as “inhumane”, but the nation insists they prevent human trafficking and save lives at sea.

    What led to Mr Morrison’s announcement?

    Last year, Australians were horrified by reports of a mental health crisis among children on Nauru – including cases of attempted suicide.

    It prompted the Labor opposition, the Greens and crossbench MPs to support a bill that gives doctors the power to recommend that refugees be transferred to Australia for treatment.

    However, the immigration minister would still have some authority to overrule transfers.

    Mr Morrison fiercely opposed the bill but it was narrowly approved in the House of Representatives, where the government does not have a majority. It later cleared the Senate.

    On Wednesday, Mr Morrison said the government would re-open the Christmas Island centre “to deal with the prospect of arrivals… and transfers” – arguing both were now more likely.

    He added that Australia’s border protection operations would receive other additional resources, but declined to elaborate.

    “This parliament has already tipped its hand enough to the people smugglers,” he said.

    Why is he being accused of fear-mongering?

    Opponents pointed out that the bill applies only to people already on Nauru and Manus Island, meaning new arrivals would not be eligible for transfer to Australia.

    Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong said Mr Morrison was playing politics ahead of the election, likely to be held in May.

    “[This is] a pattern of deceit and desperation from a man who is desperate to cling to office – a man who has nothing left, nothing left but deceit, fear and smear,” she told the chamber on Wednesday.

    What happened at Christmas Island previously?

    The centre, which operated from 2003 until last year, saw numerous scenes of unrest – including riots, protests and brawls.

    In 2010, about 50 asylum seekers from Iraq and Iran died when their boat smashed onto rocks off the island.

    At its height, the centre held thousands of people. It closed in October when the final 35 detainees were removed.

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    Australia ups Pacific role to counter China

    Australia will create a multi-billion dollar fund for Pacific island nations to build infrastructure, in an apparent attempt to counter China’s influence.

    Delivering a major policy speech, PM Scott Morrison said he aimed to restore the Pacific to the “front and centre” of Australia’s foreign outlook.

    Australia will offer up to A$2bn (£1.11bn; $1.45bn) in grants and loans to strengthen ties, he said.

    In Beijing, China’s top diplomat said the two countries were “not rivals”.

    After meeting Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in Beijing, top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said the two countries should be co-operating in the Pacific.

    The relationship between China and Australia has become strained over allegations of Chinese interference in Australian politics and Ms Payne’s visit has been seen as an effort to resolve tensions.

    Ms Payne said she had had “valuable, full and candid” discussions with Mr Wang, and said they would manage differences “respectfully”.

    But Mr Morrison’s announcement on the same day of a major initiative targeted at the Pacific was seen by analysts as directed at rolling back China’s growing influence.

    “Australia cannot take its influence in the south-west Pacific for granted. I think, sadly, too often we have,” he said. “This is our patch. This is where we have special responsibilities.”

    The fund could be used for telecommunications, energy and transport infrastructure projects, Mr Morrison suggested. He said he would also ask Parliament to pledged another A$1bn in regional investments providing “national benefit for Australia”.

    He added that Australia would expand its diplomatic posts and military ties, and broadcast more local TV programmes in the region.

    Reasserting influence

    Hywel Griffith, BBC News Sydney correspondent

    For over a decade, Australia has watched China’s power grow in what it regards as its backyard.

    Ahead of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Papua New Guinea (PNG) next week, Scott Morrison has decided it is time to reassert Australia’s dominant position.

    By offering billions of dollars in loans on top of long-term aid, Australia can buy some real financial leverage over its neighbours.

    By promising more access to Australian television, it can maintain some so-called soft power too.

    The hope is that people in the Pacific will continue to see Australia as their natural, neighbourly ally.

    Mr Morrison said new diplomatic missions would be created in Palau, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and the Cook Islands.

    China is estimated to have invested A$1.3bn in the region since 2011, and has become the second-largest donor of foreign aid there behind Australia.

    Australia has already moved to play a key role in Pacific projects this year. In July, it committed to building an underwater internet cable to the Solomon Islands and PNG, in a move that shut out Chinese company Huawei.

    It has also announced plans to build a joint naval base with PNG.

    Jonathan Pryke, from think-tank the Lowy Institute, cautioned that China’s investment was often overstated.

    “Our research shows that aside from Papua New Guinea, no other country [in the Pacific] has taken new loans from China in recent times,” he told the BBC.

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    Embattled Australian PM suffers historic defeat over refugees

    CANBERRA (AFP) – Australia’s conservative minority government suffered a damaging political defeat on Tuesday (Feb 12), becoming the first administration in nearly a century to lose a vote on major legislation and sparking calls for a snap election.

    Despite a bruising and highly personal lobbying effort, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was defeated by MPs who insisted refugees held in offshore facilities have the right to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

    It is the first time in decades that an Australian government has lost a vote on a substantive piece of legislation, sparking applause and cheers from observers in the parliamentary viewing gallery in Canberra.

    Mr Morrison lost his parliamentary majority last year and has been relying on cross-benchers to keep control of the Lower House of Representatives.

    But the 75-74 vote – which came on the first sitting day of Parliament this year – in favour of the refugee Bill opposed by the government is a blow to the already embattled Prime Minister and raised questions about whether he can remain in office.

    When the sitting government last lost a vote on substantive legislation in 1929, then Prime Minister Stanley Bruce immediately called an election, and lost it.

    The government of prime minister Arthur Fadden lost a symbolic budget vote in 1941 and immediately resigned.

    NO SNAP ELECTION

    Mr Morrison ruled out calling a snap election, saying the vote was not a no-confidence motion in his government and he was still planning for a national poll in May.

    “These are not matters that go to issues of confidence and I don’t consider them in those terms,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

    The Bill passed with the support of the main opposition Labor Party and cross-benchers from the left-leaning Greens and independent MPs.

    Many of the independent MPs have indicated they want the government to serve its full term, which ends in May.

    The Bill, which is an amendment to government legislation, was first passed by the Upper House in December, and will return to the Senate for a vote on Wednesday after several changes were made to it.

    It is expected to pass as the coalition does not have the numbers in the Upper House to block it.

    The push to speed up medical evacuations was first made by independent MP Kerryn Phelps last year after she won the Liberal Party stronghold of Wentworth when former PM Malcolm Turnbull was ousted in a party coup.

    Since then, the government had lurched from crisis to crisis, and a disastrous showing in elections in Victoria state intensified expectations it is heading for defeat in May.

    The vote in favour of the Bill came amid growing concern about the well-being of asylum seekers sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea, with reports of abuse, suicide and lengthy detention periods.

    Under a harsh policy meant to deter asylum seekers from reaching Australia by boat, Canberra sends arrivals to the camps for processing and barred them from resettling in Australia.

    Rights groups praised the vote, with the Human Rights Law Centre calling it a “watershed moment in refugee politics and Australian history”.

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    Australian government set for crushing election defeat: poll

    MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s conservative government is facing a huge electoral defeat as it heads into the final sitting of parliament ahead of a national election expected in May, a widely watched poll found on Monday.

    A Newspoll for The Australian newspaper showed opposition Labor retained a lead of 53 percent to 47 percent over the Liberal-National government led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, unchanged from the previous poll in December, despite recent efforts to frighten voters on Labor’s tax plans.

    The poll came out as parliament returns this week from its summer break, with the minority government facing defeat on two issues due on the floor as it is dependent on seven independents to vote with it.

    The government is looking to block a bid, led by an independent, to allow asylum seekers in offshore camps to come to Australia for medical treatment, saying migrants could exploit it as a way into the country.

    Both major parties have long backed tight border protection, looking to keep asylum seekers that arrive by boat out of the country, but Labor has indicated it might back the “Medivac” bill, which would land an embarrassing defeat of the government in parliament.

    The government is also looking to stop Labor’s effort to extend this sitting of parliament to deal with recommendations released last week from a landmark inquiry into misconduct in the banking industry.

    Defeat in either would not trigger an election.

    Over the parliamentary break, Morrison has been traveling around the country attacking plans by Labor to cut some dividend tax benefits, which could hit pensioners, but Newspoll found the tax attacks had failed to beef up support for the government.

    The latest poll found 44 percent of voters opposed abolishing the tax refunds on dividend credits, down from 48 percent in December.

    The survey was conducted from Feb. 7 to 10, with 1,567 interviews and a sampling error of 2.5 percentage points.

    Morrison declined to comment on the poll on Monday. Delivering a speech in Canberra, the prime minister sought to persuade voters that the ruling coalition’s national security policy was more robust than the opposition’s.

    “Under my government, Australia will be stronger. Under Bill Shorten’s Labor government, Australia will be weaker,” Morrison said.

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    Sacked Australia coach fights to clear name

    The sacked coach of the Australian women’s football team has strongly contested his shock dismissal five months before the World Cup.

    Football Federation Australia fired Alen Stajcic in January over claims of an “unsatisfactory” team environment.

    In his first public comments, Stajcic said he remained “in the dark” over why he was dismissed.

    The 45-year-old, who has publicly received support from players, said he was also considering legal action.

    Under his five-year tenure, the Matildas reached the quarter-finals of the 2015 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, and ranked as high as fourth in the world governing body Fifa’s ranking.

    Officials had based his dismissal on the results of two confidential team surveys which found “workplace culture” and “welfare” issues, and on further player and staff interviews.

    On Monday, Stajcic strenuously denied involvement in “any impropriety or misconduct relating to the players”.

    He added that despite requests, he had not been given access to the survey’s results and could not respond to accusations.

    “I’m here today to clear my name and restore my reputation,” he told reporters in Sydney.

    “In 20 years of coaching, I’ve never had an issue around the culture of any single team that I’ve coached, let alone the Matildas… I consider the actions of the FFA to be without foundation and unjustifiable.”

    Football Federation Australia is yet to respond to the latest comments.

    Strajcic also thanked several squad members for their support, some of whom have expressed dismay on social media.

    Shocked/disappointed to hear Staj won’t be taking us to the World Cup in less than 5 months. We’ve been preparing meticulously under him over the last 4yrs to have the best crack to win in France and under his guidance we have been the most successful team in Matildas history. 🇦🇺

    End of Twitter post by @KyahSimon

    Former Sydney FC Women manager Strajcic joined the Matildas in 2014, succeeding Hesterine de Reus, who was dismissed after a player revolt.

    The Matildas, who are now ranked sixth in the world, begin their World Cup campaign against Italy on 9 June, with group games to follow against Brazil and Jamaica.

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    Thousands without power as storm lashes Sydney

    SYDNEY (AFP) – Thousands of Sydney homes were without power on Saturday (Feb 9) after severe storms hit Australia’s largest city, causing transport hold-ups, inundating vehicles with flood water and delaying a national football match.

    Heavy rains and lightning storms lashed parts of Sydney late on Friday, with close to 60 millimetres of rain falling in some areas.

    In Sydney’s west, which experienced some flash flooding, one suburb saw nearly 42 millimetres fall in a short downpour lasting just 30 minutes.

    “It was a slow-moving storm with that warm humid air moving along the coast… that allowed for that increase of moisture,” Byron Doyle from the New South Wales Bureau of meteorology told AFP.

    Images of cars submerged in flood waters on main roads, broken traffic lights and fallen trees circulated on social media.

    Energy companies reported that more than 40,000 customers were affected by power outages at the peak of the storm overnight, with more than 5,000 still without power early on Saturday.

    Emergency services fielded over 1,000 requests for assistance, including nine flood rescues in the Sydney area.

    The rescues were “all for vehicles in flood water”, a New South Wales state emergency services spokesman told AFP.

    Flights were delayed at Sydney’s airport, while the storm caused havoc on some of the city’s train lines.

    The start of a national Australian rules football women’s match was delayed twice, pushed back 45 minutes as heavy rain and lightning pummelled the oval.

    Several light towers then went out mid-match during the live television broadcast, temporarily stopping the game during a reported blackout.

    The Sydney storm comes as recovery efforts continue in Australia’s flood-ravaged north-eastern state of Queensland, which over the past week has seen record-breaking rainfall, forcing hundreds of evacuations and thousands of requests for help.

    Extreme heatwaves during the southern hemisphere summer have also led to temperature records being broken in some towns.

    Eastern inland areas have been experiencing a severe drought, while firefighters in the country’s southern states have been recently battling bushfires.

    High temperatures are not unusual in the Australian summer, but climate change has pushed up land and sea temperatures and led to more extremely hot days and severe fire seasons, scientists say.

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    Australian parliament computer network breached

    SYDNEY (AFP) – Australia’s parliament revealed on Friday (Feb 8) that its computer network had been compromised by an unspecified “security incident” and said an investigation was under way.

    “Following a security incident on the parliamentary computing network, a number of measures have been implemented to protect the network and its users,” parliamentary authorities said in a statement.

    Officials declined to comment on the nature of the cyber security breach, but said there was no evidence that data had been accessed.

    “We have no evidence that this is an attempt to influence the outcome of parliamentary processes or to disrupt or influence electoral or political processes,” a statement said.

    “Our immediate focus has been on securing the network and protecting data and users.”

    All parliamentary passwords were reset and The Australian Cyber Security Centre – part of the country’s signals intelligence agency- is among those investigating.

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    Chinese contractor for Australia's AMP charged with stealing customer data

    SYDNEY (Reuters) – A Chinese contractor for Australian financial planner AMP Ltd was charged with stealing the confidential data of 20 of its customers, police and the company said on Thursday.

    The man, named by authorities as Yi Zheng, 28, pleaded guilty to the offence in a Sydney court on Thursday, the Australian Associated Press reported.

    New South Wales state police said they began investigating the breach after AMP’s cybersecurity staff noticed suspicious activity on the company network in December.

    The investigation led them to Yi, who had downloaded 23 identity-related documents belonging to 20 customers and sent them to his personal email account, police said.

    Yi was arrested as he tried to board a flight to China on Jan. 17, police said, adding that they seized mobile phones, SIM cards, a laptop, and other electronic storage devices from his luggage.

    He was charged “with possess identity info to commit indictable offence”, police said, without saying what the man planned to do with the customer information.

    “Identity information is an extremely valuable commodity on the black market and dark web, and anyone – whether an individual or business – who stores this data needs to ensure it is protected,” New South Wales Cybercrime Squad Commander, Detective Superintendent Matt Craft, said in a statement.

    An AMP spokeswoman said the data breach involved a small amount of customer information and there was no evidence the data was further compromised.

    The company had contacted all affected customers, put extra security controls in place for those customers, and notified the relevant regulators.

    Yi’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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    Last refugee children in Pacific camp to be moved, Australia PM Scott Morrison says

    SYDNEY (AFP) – The last remaining refugee children detained by Australia on the remote Pacific island of Nauru are being moved to other countries, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday (Feb 3), following criticism of Canberra’s harsh treatment of asylum-seekers.

    Under a policy meant to deter would-be asylum-seekers from reaching Australia by boat, Canberra sends arrivals to Pacific camps, where they await the processing of their applications.

    But there has been growing domestic and international pressure on the government to move children held in the offshore island camps, following reports of serious health problems.

    “Every asylum-seeker child has now been removed from Nauru or has had their claim processed and has a clear path off the island,” Morrison said in a joint statement with Immigration Minister David Coleman.

    Morrison said when he came into power in August, there were 109 children on the island.

    “There are now only four asylum seeker children on Nauru and they have all been approved for departure to the United States of America with their families,” he added.

    Canberra says the policy discourages asylum-seekers from embarking on dangerous sea voyages, and that it has managed to halt the flood of boat arrivals that characterised previous governments.

    But the camps have come under fierce criticism, with reports of abuse, suicide and despondency.

    Eyewitnesses – including AFP journalists – have reported a dire situation on Nauru, with families living under constant fear of loved ones committing suicide.

    Public polls have also shown that Australians want children and their families transferred off Nauru, although the tough policy remains popular with Morrison’s right-wing base.

    There are another estimated 600 men in transition centres on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island after the camp there was closed in 2017, according to refugee advocates.

    Canberra bars the refugees from resettling in Australia and instead tries to send them to third countries like the US.

    Several hundred from Manus and Nauru have been resettled in the US, but the process has been slow, leaving some refugees languishing for years on the islands.

    The announcement comes ahead of the first sitting of Parliament this year in mid-February, where the conservative minority government was expected to come under pressure to move the children off Nauru.

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