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False claims

The Bakhtiari cover-up

The Howard government's biggest attempt at a refugee case management cover-up?

Is the case of Ali Bakhtiari nothing more than a massive attempt to obfuscate in order to confuse refugee advocates and the supporters of the Bakhtiari family?

Stephen Churches: "The saga of the Bakhtiyari family has highlighted many misconceptions about the way Australia's refugee intake and screening system works."

Related pages:

7 January 2005: The Bakhtiyari Files - It is likely that the goings-on around the Bakhtiari case constitute one of the Howard government's biggest attempt at a refugee case management cover-up, and the fact that this was a cover-up is a lot more likely than that the Bakhtiaris were, as the Australian government stubbornly maintained, indeed Pakistanis.

Amina Bakhtiari's last peek at Australia 4 January 2005:  Deported: the case of Ali Bakhtiyari - After their five-year struggle to get acceptance for their refugee claim, the Bakhtiari family was finally deported in the middle of the night shortly after Christmas 2004. This is the story of what wass reported as the last phase of their struggle, but we hope that the Bakhtiari case will haunt some agents in the Howard government for a long time - and realistically speaking, we don't expect it will.

The Bakhtiari cover-up

Project SafeCom opinion
7 January 2005

It is likely that the goings-on around the Bakhtiari case constitute one of the Howard government's biggest attempt at a refugee case management cover-up, and the fact that this was a cover-up is a lot more likely than that the Bakhtiaris in the end will be found to be Pakistanis.

There are many things that need covering up from the government's point of view. Many of the reasons would if found true be connected with the former immigration minister Philip Ruddock, designed to protect the now Attorney-General Philip Ruddock's statements of April to October 2002 - and onwards - which attempt to portray Ali Bakhtiari as a plumber from Quetta and a liar in the context of his wife Roqia's language assessment and determination that she was not a refugee and that she was not from Afghanistan.

That language assessment 'concluded' that Roqia was from Pakistan and not from Afhanistan, but was this thoroughly verified?

As a result of Roqia's failure to get refugee status, Ali's visa was revoked and he was put back in detention at the end of 2002. It needs noting that Roqia arrived separately from Ali without knowing he was here (and the Department of Immigration didn't bother telling her, or letting Ali know), and she arrived with her children as well as Ali Mahzer, the man who threw himself on the razor wire at the Woomera detention centre to attract attention to the fate of the family - especially the children, after which he was deported to Pakistan (and promptly fled to Afghanistan).

Several other questions remain unanswered up till now, for example about whether or not there was 'intentional leaking' of 'certain so-called evidence' by the immigration department - at the time headed by Ruddock - that Ali was a Pakistani, plumber or not, to representatives of the Australian media, particularly to The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age. Remarkably, from July/August 2002 they were all of a sudden frantically writing about Ali and about the Bakhtiaris, and The Australian and The Age undertook "investigative trips" to Afghanistan. How come they all seemed to fail on finding evidence that the Bakhtiaris were from Afghanistan, while they looked in the wrong village?

Then there are questions about the veracity or lack of veracity of the 'evidence' the immigration department claims it has, that Ali Bakhtiari is from Pakistan. Claims are doing the rounds amongst refugee supporters that the government has just one slip of paper, unsigned and undated, from Pakistan, alleging Ali Bakhtiari was from there.

One of the documents on our website (see below) is a PDF file, sent to us by someone we do not know. The document is a fax sent to the current immigration minister Amanda Vanstone on 21 January 2004. This file contains evidence sent by lawyers for the family, that family members are from Afghanistan. The document was ignored by the Minister, because, reportedly it fell 'outside the guidelines'. See the remarks by one of the former lawyers for the family, Mr Paul Boylan, below.

Just as this introduction to The Bakhtiari files is being written, Kamal Siddiqi and Andrew McGarry write in The Herald Sun (07 Jan 2005):

Owais Bakhtiyari, the nephew of Ali, told The Australian yesterday he had had no news of the family, believed by Pakistani authorities to be headed for the border city of Quetta.

"They are not in Quetta and I know only from news reports that they arrived in Pakistan on Sunday," Owais said. He said they could have gone to Afghanistan instead. [....]

Owais would not comment on the Australian Government's decision to deport the family but said they were from Afghanistan.

The Bakhtiari affair asks for an investigation, but it is unlikely to happen on Parliamentary levels. So, we hope that someone will do the honours, but it would demand levels of investigation and scrutiny that equals the work of Marianne Wilkinson and David Marr's Dark Victory.

The Bakhtiari Files

Hundreds of news articles have appeared in Australian and International media about the Bakhtiari family since Andrew West revealed the story of the family in the Sun-Herald in February 2002, shortly after their uncle, the now deported "crown witness", clearly a Hazara from Afghanistan, jumped on the razor wire at Woomera. At Project SafeCom, we collected them all (well, most of them). They are brought together in four WORD documents, zipped up for security from viruses.

Simply use the "Right-click, Save As" command of your mouse on the linked text.

Selective Evidence: the expulsion of the Bakhtiyari family

Eureka Street
5 April 2005
by Stephen Churches

Was the decision to deny the Bakhtiyaris refugee status based on all the facts?

The saga of the Bakhtiyari family has highlighted many misconceptions about the way Australia's refugee intake and screening system works. These misconceptions are played upon by politicians of both stripes, and are not put to rest by journalists. A story by Russell Skelton in The Age of 26 December 2004 (reprinted in the Independent Weekly in Adelaide) seriously questioned the family's claim to be Afghans.

I had some limited dealings (as a court advocate) with the claims for refugee status by the father, Ali Bakhtiyari, as well as the claim by the children to be released from detention, and question the vehemence of the political statements and the soundness of Russell Skelton's insinuations against the family's interest.

The father, Ali, and mother, Roqia (and the then five children), arrived in Australia independently of one another, resulting in twin streams of inquiry and appeal into their case. Ali arrived in October 1999 and, on the basis of his written claim, was granted a Temporary Protection Visa in August 2000. However, Roqia arrived in January 2001, unaware of Ali's presence in the country, and applied for refugee status.

In February 2001, Roqia was interviewed by a delegate of the Minister for Immigration. In early May the Government obtained a linguistic analysis which asserted that Roqia's accent reflected that of Quetta, in Pakistan, while she used Iranian words and had some Iranian pronunciations. I did not act for Roqia, and have no knowledge of the linguistic analysis other than that provided by the Refugee Review Tribunal following the delegate's decision, but Iran and Pakistan are on opposite sides of Afghanistan. It seems not implausible that Roqia's language reflected the impact on the central country of the neighbours on either side, rather than that Roqia must have come from Quetta.

In May 2001 the Minister's delegate refused Roqia and the children a refugee visa on the grounds that while it was not clear which country they were from, it was not Afghanistan. Roqia, through her lawyers, appealed to the Refugee Review Tribunal. The tribunal is set up under the Migration Act as the last line of appeal for finding the facts about a refugee claim.

Politicians (most often Philip Ruddock, but more lately Amanda Vanstone) like to talk glibly about how refugee claimants have access to a long line of appeal procedures, but they do not explain that in such court appeals, the facts of the claim are not canvassed. The process is more properly referred to as review, to distinguish it from an appeal on the merits of the case. All the Federal Court, the Full Federal Court (usually sitting as three judges) and ultimately the High Court can do, is examine the process by which the tribunal came to its decision. This results in increasingly refined and, in turn, arid discussion of what is permissible behaviour in the course of executive-branch decision-making (the tribunal is part of the executive, not the judiciary). The courts may not, on any account, examine the merits of the facts of the case. In the rare instances in which they find the process faulty, the matter is remitted to the tribunal to hear again: it is not for the courts to make merit decisions where the function of fact-finding is vested by statute in the executive.

In short, if the tribunal gives the appearance of having listened to the applicant fairly, and appears to have taken all matters relevant into account, and avoided irrelevant considerations, then how it weighs the evidence is entirely its business: no court may second-guess it.

In July 2001 the tribunal rejected Roqia's appeal, and as Skelton observed, commented on her lack of credibility. I have recently obtained a copy of the tribunal reasons, and was struck by how culturally straight-jacketed the member constituting the tribunal appeared to be. If Roqia's claims have any basis in fact, she had arrived in Australia straight from an existence lived in the style of Europeans in about 1340. On her account she lived in a village in provincial Afghanistan, surrounded by other sub-villages, and knew nothing of the outside world. The tribunal was not having a bar of it.

I merely note that members of the Refugee Review Tribunal should be wary of their own cultural conceptions about how the rest of the world works. On the other hand, Skelton claims that other women of Roqia's ethnic group, Hazara, interviewed by him in her village of Charkh, laughed at her lack of knowledge. And that in turn raises the matter of the inability of some applicants, particularly those from non-Western backgrounds, to trust ministerial delegates and tribunal members sufficiently to tell them a coherent story.

Translation of the story is another matter. I note that the Australian Financial Review (29 December 2004-3 January 2005), raised the suggestion that the translations for Roqia had been performed by Malyar Dehsabzi, an Afghan of non-Hazara background, who with his brother is now under investigation by the Department of Immigration's Migration and Fraud Investigation Unit.

One would have hoped that the department had taken steps to ensure that the translation process had avoided the use of people from whom claimants are fleeing (Hazaras are hated by many other groups in Afghanistan), but it seems this is not so. The antipathy of other Afghans to Hazaras-the very heart of the persecution claims by most Hazaras-ought to be borne in mind by those, such as Skelton, when exploring this sort of story in public. It is not hard to guess where Skelton's snide 'considerable speculation' about Roqia's relationship with her half-brother, Mazhar Ali, or 'the suspicion of some detainees' would have come from.

Skelton makes much of having interviewed Ali as to his claim of having come from 'Uruzgan province, Sharistan district and Charkh village', a claim consistent with that made by Roqia as to her origins. Skelton goes on to write: 'There is only one Charkh in Uruzgan ...' Yet only a paragraph later he writes of having searched the villages of Charkh Nolije and Charkh Chaprasak. Could it be that the village name 'Charkh' is a common one, often used in conjunction with other names? By way of example, I note that in an area of 40 miles by 24 miles an English road map shows 26 villages with 'Aston' in their name, and 11 in the counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire alone: six are simply 'Aston', the remainder having names like 'Aston Magna'. Hell for the mailman before postcodes. Afghanistan, and Ali and Roqia, appear to be definitely pre-postcode. And there are certainly other 'Charkhs'.

But that brings us to the story of how Ali had his refugee visa taken away from him, and was then classified as a non-refugee. It is salutary to note that throughout 2001 Ali and Roqia did not know of each other's presence in Australia. It is apparent from the argument on Roqia's application for review in the High Court (her lawyers took a constitutional point that avoided having to go through the Federal Court) that the Refugee Tribunal hearing Roqia's appeal on the merits knew that Ali was in Australia, but did not tell her. It was argued that this should have been disclosed to her so she could have claimed entry as the wife of someone with a refugee visa (as Ali then had). This line of attack was repulsed as not raising a legal issue, but Australians might care to reflect on the behaviour of one of their officials who, while interviewing a person seeking humanitarian help, armed with information as to a missing spouse, withholds it. No doubt on orders from the department.

In April 2002 the department gave notice to Ali of its intention to remove his refugee visa, on the basis that he had lied as to his nation of origin. Ali made representations to the department through his lawyers, and in December 2002 the Minister's delegate cancelled the visa. Ali appealed to the Refugee Review Tribunal. The tribunal dealt with five major areas of evidence concerning Ali's refugee claim: a facial-mapping analysis; Pakistani government citizenship documents; a linguistic analysis; eyewitness recognition of Ali; and newspaper articles.

The department put on evidence from a facial-mapping specialist that Ali was one and the same as the person in a Pakistani government registration form photograph, the photograph then 27 years old. Ali's then lawyers, a Sydney-based firm, responded with a report from a scientist in the field who categorically denied that facial-recognition techniques such as used by the department worked, and that such analysis was forensically useless. The tribunal brushed aside Ali's scientist and accepted the department's version.

The documentation fight went off in part on a letter from a widower brother-in-law of Ali's, Teimoor Ali, 'resident of Charkh Bagar', who asked the District Governor of Sharistan to write to the Australian authorities to say that Ali and his family were from Afghanistan. On 6 September 2002 the Governor of Sharistan wrote to the Australian government, stating that Ali and his family (they were all enumerated in the letter) all came from Sharistan district. Of this letter the tribunal said: ' ... the letter does not set out the basis on which the District Governor makes this statement ...' Did he write it of his own knowledge or relying on what others told him? The tribunal discounted this letter in favour of the Pakistani government registration documents, one dated to 1973 and the other to 1982, which showed an Ali Bakhtiyari as the son (and brother) of a family.

The evidence before the tribunal included material from the Pakistani government as to the efficacy of its citizenship registration scheme. Bakhtiyari is not an uncommon name. The best evidence that Ali was a citizen of Pakistan would have come from a search of the Pakistan citizenship register for the year 1998, just before he set off for Australia, to see if he turned up as the husband of Roqia and father of then five children. This search seems never to have been undertaken, and the Australian government's claim to have evidence from the Pakistan government as to the nationality of the family, evidence never publicly disclosed, would appear to rest on the documents now more than 20 and 30 years old respectively, which themselves were internally inconsistent. The tribunal happily plumped for the aged registration forms. And why not? They contained the name Ali Bakhtiyari, and who cares how many Pakistanis might have that name?

The department then undertook an analysis of Ali's speech, performed by a Swedish firm, Eqvator. In a little over a page, Eqvator gave no indication of the identity, credentials or skills of the person performing the analysis, nor any methodology, but, as had been the case with Roqia, referred to aspects of language reflecting both Pakistani and Iranian usage. Eqvator came to the firm conclusion that Ali's 'Hazaragi dialect is Pakistani. His mother tongue is Dari', and that it 'may with considerable certainty be said to originate from Pakistan, Quetta'.

Ali's Sydney-based solicitors tendered not one, but two linguistic analyses of Ali's speech, both performed by specialists who gave their names and credentials as experts, and explained their methodology. Mr Yosufi, an Australian government-recognised translator into English from Persian, Dari, Hazaragi and Pashto, concluded that Ali was 'a Hazara from Uruzgan in Afghanistan'. Mr Mohammad, a speaker of Dari and teacher of Persian, holder of a master of arts degree in theoretical linguistics from Ohio University and a doctoral student in the department of linguistics, University of Arizona, concluded that Ali's speech was 'the same as the speech of other Hazaras living in Afghanistan'.

The tribunal pronounced that Mr Yosufi had not established his credentials to perform linguistic analysis (note that Eqvator had provided no credentials whatsoever), and that as regards Mr Mohammad, it 'prefers the linguistic analysis provided by Eqvator, having regard to greater rigour given by that agency's standards, requirements and operating procedures'. This conclusion represents an extraordinary leap of faith that has no part in a fact-finding exercise.

The lawyers then submitted statements from two men who claimed, independently of one another, to have met Ali in Afghanistan years earlier, and then run into him fortuitously in Sydney. The story of one witness was published in the Sydney Morning Herald. The tribunal is not a court, and does not have to operate on the strict rules of evidence, but the tribunal member was not going to accept these statements unless the two witnesses appeared before the tribunal. As they had not appeared, they could not be tested by the tribunal, which was not prepared to accept their assertions.

Finally, the tribunal relied on various Australian newspaper articles written in the course of 2002, particularly by journalists who claimed to have been to the village of Charkh (Skelton being the vanguard of this group) and who found no sign of the Bakhtiyaris ever having been there. The tribunal seemed to contradict its suggestion that if Ali's eyewitnesses must be available for examination, the same might apply to journalists. The British government sends its own officials to make inquiry in cases such as these, and does not rely on newspaper reports to settle something as important as a refugee claim.

The tribunal concluded that, 'having regard to the totality of the evidence', Ali was from Quetta, in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. This conclusion was reached by the simple expedient of preferring the department's evidence at all points, no matter how persuasive Ali's material. But, the weighing of evidence is a function reserved solely for the tribunal. So long as it indicates it has looked at evidence before ditching it, no court can review its actions.

Ali sought review of this decision before the Full Federal Court, where I argued that review should take place at the British 'human rights' level: the decision had not merely to be not 'unreasonable', but had to be 'justified' on the evidence. The three judges gave the argument short shrift.

Ali had yet another trip through the tribunal to determine whether he was a refugee, but after the initial decision that he had lied in order to obtain his refugee visa, the answer was preordained, as were attempts at review in the Federal Court. The final round of reviews in the Federal Court did attempt to introduce 'fresh evidence' gathered since the tribunal hearing, including the material sent back to Australia from Afghanistan by Roqia's brother, Mazhar Ali. Mazhar Ali was removed by the Australian government in August 2003 to Pakistan, and then moved himself back to where he always said he had come from, the Sharistan district in Afghanistan.

Skelton scoffs that this is 'ironically a region of Afghanistan to which the Bakhtiyari family said they could never return'. Mazhar appears to have gone there specifically to obtain evidence as to the family's origins. Ali, Roqia and the children are now faced with the same 'irony', as they have left Pakistan, to which they were removed, and headed into Afghanistan, attempting to prove their origins.

The documents sent by Mazhar included a number of testimonies from officials in the Bakhtiyaris' home village and district in Uruzgan province (the officials ranked at the equivalent of mayor and governor) testifying to the family's residence in that province until they fled the Taliban; Ali in 1999, and Roqia and the children in 2000. Under the rules of judicial review, this material was not allowed to be introduced to the reviewing court. But it is remarkable that Skelton can write of these documents: 'The evidence he [Mazhar] has gathered, including a voter registration that can be purchased by any Afghan on the black market for A$25, is inconclusive.' What a cheap shot. There was more material than a voter registration certificate. Still, at least the court and Skelton have seen and commented to some extent on the new material: it was presented to the Minister, who refused to acknowledge its existence.

It is that approach by the Minister, Amanda Vanstone, that neatly encapsulates the Government's position of rigid adherence to structure. Because the tribunal is vested with the task of fact-finding in respect of refugee status, once it has made its decision against an applicant, the Government claims it cannot be swayed by any countervailing or new material. The Migration Act is stuffed full of discretions to be exercised by the Minister: there was no impediment to her looking at the new material from Afghanistan sent by Roqia's brother, and granting the family visas on the basis of that information.

Skelton opened his account by saying that the Bakhtiyaris' claim to refugee status was 'based on evidence that is patchy, often contradictory, or doesn't exist'. I can only say to him that the evidence from the Bakhtiyaris was consistent as to their origins, plausible as to their claim to be from that part of Afghanistan (see the linguistic analysis, the independent eyewitness accounts in Australia, and the official letters from Uruzgan over the period 2002-2004), and not at all patchy or contradictory. One can only surmise that Skelton's visits to three 'Charkhs' may not have exhausted the villages with that name: a cursory glance through the materials in the review applications reveals a 'Charkh Vanalej Bargar' and a 'Takht i Talag Barger'. Skelton and others, allowing for actions in all good faith, are wrestling with transcriptions from Dari into Latin script, and the vagaries of pronunciation.

I wonder if a family with six children might not have been the subject of reportage with a little less self-justifying swagger than Skelton's. Perhaps they might even have received a sympathetic coverage that pointed out the coherence and plausibility of their claim.

Dr Steven Churches works in Adelaide as a lawyer in the field of public law, and in particular refugee claims.