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Fixing Australia

Australia is broken. Democracy has holes in it, cracks in it, and it needs fixing. Since the 2004 Federal election we know that our government is not going to fix it. I think we need to do that fixing, and this blog is a start of getting some ideas together.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Bakhtiyari bungling and the DIMIA media set

Sydney RAC Bakhtiyari protest Christmas 2004Narrogin WA, 26 Dec 2004 - Politicians are notorious for their inferior skills in clinically assessing and promoting the facts, but they're masters in stating their own case, defending conclusions, elaborating on them, and "selling them", provided they get their policies successfully backed up. One of those cases defended through thick and thin by politicians is the ongoing case of mandatory detention post-Tampa-style, and the notion that asylum seekers with initiative, who dare to arrive unannounced on Australian shores are queue jumpers or fraudsters. Labor's spokesman for immigration Laurie Ferguson happily joins with the government on this bandwagon as we learnt recently ... and former immigration minister, now Attorney-General Philip Ruddock made the strongest initial case during "his reign" in the portfolio.

Ruddock was keen as mustard to prove the point that "many" asylum seekers who claimed to be from Afghanistan were in fact from Pakistan. He started to announce this "rampant fraud" on April 12, 2002, when he announced his trip to Asia and Europe. For good measure he included Pakistan on the itinerary, and on the same day that he announced the trip he also announced that he sought to discredit Ali Bakhtiyari's claim to be from Afghanistan. Presumably he sought to overturn the claim because Roqia, his wife, was determined by the RRT to not be from Afghanistan.

Not only did Ruddock spend your tax dollars to "find out the facts", when he came back from Pakistan he sent the media hound from The Age, Russell Skelton also to Afghanistan. What? He sent them? No way.

Of course he didn't. Russell Skelton was paid by The Age for the trip. But let it be known, and let it be on the public record, that Skelton took with him an interpreter from the Department of Immigration, DIMIA. And we call that "Independent media", yeah right. When a Senator - Andrew Bartlett from the Australian Democrats - wishes to visit Nauru, the visa for his independent interpreter gets cancelled, but when the Australian media want to find out facts about Ali Bakhtiyari lying to the authorities, they get considerable support. Below is Skelton's new piece from the Sunday Age, in reply to Bob Ellis' critique from last week, see our previous report on the Bakhtiyari family. And I've added Marilyn Shepherd's reply to Russell - and in our Scoop of the Week, the documentation with evidence that the family is from Afghanistan, sent by lawyers for the family to Vanstone's office (yes, almost a year ago!) is now also on our website.

And let it also be known that Ruddock's announcement of 12 April 2002 that there were lots of "fraudsters" - our Master Illusionist politician mentioned a figure of 700 - amongst the 4000 asylum claimants who said they were Afghanis, but who instead were from Pakistan, did not get any confirmation. There were some. Maybe a handful. Read more below.

The Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Philip Ruddock will discuss issues ranging from border protection, to tourism and the international asylum system during a visit taking in Europe, China and West Asia. [...] "The recent Bali Ministerial Conference on people smuggling demonstrated that Governments have common concerns about irregular movements," Mr Ruddock said. The visit will include discussions with Pakistan and Iran which have both struggled under the burden of millions of refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years. (Media Centre, Minister's Visit to Discuss Border Protection and Migration MPS 27/2002 - 12 April 2002)

"On 12 April this year [2002] my Department issued a notice of intent to cancel the father's Temporary Protection Visa on the grounds that he was actually a Pakistani national who had been working as a plumber in Pakistan, not an Afghan national as he claimed," Mr Ruddock said. (Media Centre: Brothers Reunited With Their Mother MPS 66/2002, 19 July 2002)

Australia has cancelled the protection visas of 50 Afghan asylum seekers and says there is evidence that some of them are from Pakistan. [...] The father, Ali Bakhtiyari, who claims to be an Afghan refugee but who is said by Australian authorities to have come from Pakistan, is thought to be one of the 50 who now face expulsion. [...] Mr Bakhtiyari and his two sons had claimed to be members of Afghanistan's persecuted Hazara minority. But Mr Ruddock's spokesman argued on Monday: "There's very large Hazara populations in Pakistan and have been for many years." (BBC World, Asia-Pacific Monday, 22 July, 2002)

Ruddock has come under pressure from some sections of the press, however. On the ABC's July 22 Lateline, he was told by a reporter to publicly produce evidence that people were lying. Ruddock has now started to backtrack from his attack on the Baktiyari family, referring to them as Afghans who were "resident" in Pakistan. But he has already fuelled the prejudice of those hostile to asylum seekers. (Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002)

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I mentioned this week that amongst the 4,000 or so Afghan - or people claiming to be Afghan who have obtained temporary protection visas - some 700 are being investigated. And in relation to some 40 people we have obtained very firm evidence in the form of original documents from Pakistan, registration documents, as to their identity, and a number of visas have already been cancelled. And in relation to Mr Bakhtiyari we've been undertaking further inquiries in Pakistan which confirm to our mind, the findings of the media inquiries and we'll putting that evidence to Mr Bakhtiyari with a view to moving on with the cancellation that had been foreshadowed. (ABC Insiders, 25/08/2002)

a PDF documentIdentity evidence from Afghanistan - documentation presented to the Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone by lawyers for the Bakhtiyari family, faxed to the Minister's office on 21 January 2004. (right-click, choose "Save As" to download)

a PDF documentSolicitor Paul Boylan's letter to The Australian: Your comment in today's edition of your paper that "nobody can suggest that the courts have not had a good look at the family's claim" grossly misleads the Australian public. [....] clause provides in part that Mr Bakhtiyari's Refugee Review Tribunal decision "must not be challenged, appealed against, reviewed, quashed or called in question in any court". (right-click, choose "Save As" to download)

The Bakhtiyari 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 images or on the linked text.

Pack bags, family told

The Advertiser

THE Bakhtiyari family - Australia's highest profile asylum seekers - spent Christmas Day packing their bags.

Officials told Roqia Bakhtiyari she and her six children should have warm clothes as they faced immediate deportation, probably today, according to refugee groups.

The order follows a written plea by Montazer Bakhtiyari, 14 - penned on behalf of the family and addressed to Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone - to spare them from deportation.

The family's impending deportation follows four years of legal bids to stay in Australia.

In the letter, published for the first time today, the teenager begs for help and vents his anger at the family's treatment by the Federal Government.

"The Christmas presents that my family want now is the freedom that we had in the community," Montazer wrote from the Residential Housing Project at Port Augusta, where the family is detained.

"My brothers and sisters don't want any presents this Christmas their presents have already been taken away."

Contacted by the Sunday Mail at their detention house yesterday, Bakhtiyari sisters Nagina, 12, and Amina, 7, said they felt sad to be leaving Australia.

Nagina, who had just finished packing her bags, said she wanted "to stay here and go to school and have friends and do a lot of things but we don't know what's going to happen".

She paused as she recalled her time at St Aloysius College with her favourite teacher, Jo Weir. "She was the best teacher I ever had - she was warm and nice," Nagina said.

Refugee groups say Montazer's letter is a final desperate attempt to prevent deportation. They say the family's lives are in danger if they return to Pakistan.

The letter was given to lawyer Paul Boylan, who is representing Ali Bakhtiyari, who is detained in Baxter Detention Centre.

He then passed the letter to Montazer's former headmaster at St Ignatius College, Father Greg O'Kelly, who gave a copy to the Sunday Mail.

The Immigration Department has refused to reopen the Bakhtiyaris' case, saying they are not refugees but Pakistani nationals and should voluntarily leave Australia or face deportation.

Last Saturday's dawn raid by Immigration officials on the family's Adelaide home is the latest twist in the long-running saga.

In the letter to Senator Vanstone, Montazer, who is known by his mates as "Monty", recalls the raid and likens it to Nazi Germany.

Father O'Kelly, who is visiting the family today, appealed to Senator Vanstone and Prime Minister John Howard to show some compassion.

"It's no longer an issue of legalities or national identities - it's a question of humanity with regard to the six children who have been integrated into our society," Father O'Kelly said.

"Focus on the children please senator and don't let the official mindset against the Bakhtiyaris distract you from humanity and the needs of the children."

Mr Boylan said the family was "terrified they will be dumped at Karachi Airport".

"This is psychological torture," Mr Boylan said.

Centacare director Dale West said "the family have been asked to pack their warm clothes", adding it was "pretty cold in Karachi".

A spokesman for Senator Vanstone would not say when the family would be deported.

"Arrangements are certainly being made," he said.

"None of the arrangements have been finalised - they are still being worked through and even when they are finalised, it's highly unlikely we will let ... you know."

He declined to comment about the letter to the media, saying Senator Vanstone would respond formally.
Son's letter begs Vanstone for reprieve

Reproduction of the letter written by Montazer Bakhtiyari to Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone. With the exception of paragraphing, it is reproduced exactly as written.

Dear Amanda Vanstone,

After years and years of persecution I had never experienced something that happened on Saturday with my family.

This year in school I studied about the German Nazis and how they treated innocent people.

For example walking into peoples room without any permission and take them away with taking their belongings and without saying goodbye to their friends and relatives.

But my studies I was thinking of those people just using my imagination. I never thought in this modern world new century a first class developed country would do the same as what the German Nazis did.

Unfortunate it is very sad for anyone to hear that. Even myself not being Australian I am so embarrassed on myself that I just couldn't believe.

I wonder how many Australians including those that I have never heard of. On Saturday I just thought that was done very badly.

I thought the human beings are nice to each other especially when someone is sleep we would let them sleep. But I never thought that we humans can be very rude and also have no respect not just for adults not just for children and also not just for babies.

The hardest part for me was to see my baby brother being woken up by stranger not even his mum. I thought people not only in Australia all over the world would be gentle with the babies because they are our new generation our future and we would be welcoming them to our beautiful world.

If I tell the story to my 14 month baby brother when he is grown I am sure that he would be very disappointed.

As a Bakhtyiari family we came injured from Afghanistan and the that Australia would be the medication for our injuries.

While I was outside in the community I always asked for Christmas presents. Even the night before I was talking with Dale West about Christmas presents.

When you are a teenager you just want presents for Christmas. We would be so busy opening our presents that we would actually forget the meaning of Christmas.

The meaning of Christmas not just for Christians for everyone is caring for each other, loving and helping the people that needs help. My brothers and sisters don't want any presents this Christmas their presents have already been taken away.

The Christmas presents that my family want now is the Freedom that we had in the community, loving, caring, from others would be the best Christmas present.

My schooling in the community my friends are again an other wish for Christmas same with my sister. Taking the schooling from me and my friends just before Christmas is one of the things that I never will forget in my life. I want every single one of these for my Christmas.

Link to the article in The Advertiser

Speculation continues on Bakhtiyaris' deportation

Sunday, December 26, 2004. 7:50am (AEDT)

There is increasing concern that the asylum-seeking Bakhtiyari family will be deported from Australia today.

The Australian Government has refused the family refugee status and plans to deport the family to Pakistan, although the family continues to argue it is from Afghanistan.

Mother Roqia and her six children were moved to community detention housing at Port Augusta last week, while father Ali is at Baxter Detention Centre.

Dale West, from the Catholic welfare agency Centacare, says the family packed their bags on Christmas Day.

He believes they will be flown out of the country today.

"Exactly how that will happen I think's open to speculation," he said.

"I'd be surprised if the Government went ahead with something that so many people knew about.

"In that context I believe that perhaps a chartered flight from Woomera or some other airport in the region is more likely than the fact that they seem to have been planning to come to Adelaide and go on a Malaysian Airlines flight."

Mr West says he has given up on last minute appeals to the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstrone.

"The Federal Government have made it clear by their public statement and by their actions of last Saturday morning when they came and woke the children and took them from their beds back to the Baxter detention environment that they are hell-bent on deporting this family," he said.

"New information about their origins, appeals for compassion all of those things seem now to be past and it's my view that the family will be deported."

A spokesman for Senator Vanstone says arrangements are being made to deport the family as soon as possible, but would not confirm if that will be today.

Deportation of Bakhtiyari family at hand

The Age
By Russell Skelton
December 26, 2004

Fresh claims that Roqia Bakhtiyari has been identified as an Afghan national by a relative living in a remote village in Afghanistan's Ghazni province have been discounted by authorities in Kabul.

The high-profile asylum-seeking Bakhtiyari family - Ali and Roqia Bakhtiyari and their six children - could be deported by the Federal Government as early as today after failing in legal bids over four years to secure refugee status.

Justice for Refugees' South Australia chairman Dr Don McMaster said the Bakhtiyaris had been told to prepare to leave Australia this weekend.

The family claims to be Afghan, but the Government says they are from Pakistan.

Authorities told The Sunday Age that they are investigating claims generated by a man named "Yusef" that he is Roqia's uncle.

Yusef lives in the tiny village of Blo near Jaghuri about 300 kilometres south of Kabul.

But a senior official in the Ministry of the Interior with responsibility for investigating the case said Jaghuri's chief minister, who initially endorsed Yusef's claim, had since admitted that he had never met Roqia or any members of the Bakhtiyari family.

The chief minister said he had only endorsed the claim as a favour to Yusef who had pressured him into endorsing the claim after showing him pictures of Roqia.

Blo is about 600 kilometres from the village where Roqia Bakhtiyari claims she grew up and lived all her life before fleeing to Pakistan with her children and brother Mazhar Ali to escape Taliban persecution. Charkh is in Uruzgan province.

The official, who is responsible for investigating nationality and citizenship issues, said it would be several weeks before investigations would be completed but he said preliminary inquiries cast serious doubt over the claims.

He said a team had already been sent to Shashrestan in Uruzgan province to investigate claims by Ali and Roqia Bakhtiyari that they came from Charkh but the team failed to find any evidence to support their claim.

"We spent days looking and found nothing," he said.

The official investigation confirms an earlier Age investigation undertaken in August 2002 that also found no evidence of the Bakhtiyari family ever having lived in Charkh - or anywhere else in that immediate region.

Last week the Afghan Embassy in Canberra announced that the Kazai Government was investigating new claims that Roqia Bakhtiyari was an Afghan national after she had approached the embassy requesting help in establishing her identity as an Afghan.

It is understood the claims referred to by the embassy were made by Yusef and do not relate to Ali or any of the children. He apparently says he knew Roqia when she was a small girl.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said the inquiries into Roqia Bakhtiyari's nationality would not delay the decision to deport the family.

"We have written confirmation that the family are nationals from Pakistan. People can have dual nationality," he said.

Under Pakistani law if a Pakistani man marries an Afghan women she is regarded as a Pakistani national.

Meanwhile, lawyers acting for Ali Bakhtiyari have, for the first time, asked the Afghan Embassy to investigate Ali's claim that he is an Afghan national.

The move, which could have been made any time in the past two years, comes only hours before the Bakhtiyari family are to be deported.

- with AAP

Link to the article in The Age

When a family tree casts only shade and doubt

The Age
December 26, 2004

The Bakhtiyaris say they are Afghan refugees, but as Russell Skelton reports, the evidence is patchy, often contradictory, or doesn't exist.

I first became aware of the Bakhtiyari family in 2001, when a welfare worker at the Woomera detention centre - then a place of violence, frustration and rage - told me about an Afghan teenager she had befriended.

The woman told me this boy had arrived at Woomera brimming with optimism but had quickly succumbed to the desperation and manipulative influence of older male detainees.

His name was Alamdar Bakhtiyari. She was deeply troubled by the alarming decline in his emotional state and filed a detailed report to ACM - the US company contracted to run Woomera - requesting intervention.

Alamdar, 12, had suicidal thoughts and had engaged in numerous acts of self-harm, including cutting the word "freedom" in his forearm with a razor blade.

The most distressing moment for the boy had come when he learnt from his mother, Roqia, that his father, Ali, had not been killed by the Taliban but was alive and working in Sydney. The boy could not understand why he could not join him.

While the accounts of Alamdar and his brother Montazer relayed to me by other ACM employees reflected the brutal environment that children were subject to at Woomera, where self-mutilation and attempted suicide were common occurrences, Roqia and her family were also the subject of speculation among other asylum seekers, especially Afghans.

When Roqia and her five children were refused refugee status by the Refugee Review Tribunal on July 26, 2001, after hearing evidence that the family was from Baluchistan, in Pakistan - a region bordering Afghanistan - it confirmed the suspicions of some detainees who had believed all along they were Pakistanis simply seeking a better life in Australia.

Tens of thousands of Hazara Afghans - descendants of the Mongols who settled in Central Asia centuries ago - had fled into Pakistan since the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and had become linguistically indistinguishable from Pakistanis.

There was also considerable speculation about the nature of Roqia's relationship with her younger half-brother, Mazhar Ali, who had chaperoned the family from Pakistan to Jakarta to Darwin by boat in January 2001.

Mazhar Ali mentored Alamdar and Montazer in their father's absence and they bonded closely with him, so much so that both boys told me during an interview over several days at the Baxter detention centre in 2002 that they loved him more than their own father. When Mazhar Ali was deported to Pakistan just days after the interview, the boys became distraught and alienated from their father. I learned later they partially blamed him for Mazhar's removal.

Since his arrival in Pakistan, Mazhar Ali has been in regular contact with Roqia and her lawyers and has apparently devoted himself to finding evidence to establish the family's Afghan history. The Sunday Age understands he has travelled to Shahrestan in Uruzgan province, ironically a region of Afghanistan the Bakhtiyari family said they could never return to. The evidence he has gathered, including a voter registration that can be purchased by any Afghan on the blackmarket for $US20, is inconclusive.

THE first time I saw Alamdar and Montazer was when they scampered behind Sister Brigid Arthur through the foyer of a Collins Street office block early one morning in July 2002 to request political asylum from the British Consulate, in a cynical stunt contrived by refugee activists. The exercise had nothing to do with the welfare of the boys, who had been living in safe houses in Melbourne ever since they escaped from Woomera during a riot, and everything to do with discrediting the Government's policies on mandatory detention.

They had been on the run for weeks, but appeared wiser than their years. I later learnt that Alamdar was suffering acute back pain from an injury he sustained in the escape, and that both boys, distressed at being separated from their mother and sisters, had become unmanageable, refusing to stay indoors.

The stunt captured headlines around the world, but it destroyed any hope of the family ever obtaining refugee status in Australia, and infuriated the Federal Government.

The family's best interests were consumed in the divisive debate that followed as the pro-refugee lobby - a broad church of lawyers, clerics, ALP, Democrat and Green politicians and anything-goes radicals - and the Government waged their arguments through the media.

Then immigration minister Philip Ruddock made his intentions clear, telling ABC radio the day after the Bakhtiyari boys were taken back into custody: "There has been information that the department has received, information from people who have known the family abroad, that they are, in fact, Pakistani . . . That information has been put to Mr Bakhtiyari as part of a process for determining whether or not his visa would be cancelled."

In another interview Mr Ruddock, to the surprise of some in his own department, went further, declaring the family to be Pakistanis and not Afghans.

Within a matter of weeks I found myself and two interpreters sitting on richly coloured rugs among scores of Hazara men in a hostel on the outskirts of Kabul. The men were anxious to help us find a safe route to Charkh, a tiny village in Uruzgan province that Ali and Roqia consistently claimed they had grown up in and from which they fled during the dark days of the Taliban. The men knew Charkh, but had never heard of the Bakhtiyaris.

Before leaving Australia I had interviewed Ali in Sydney at length about where to go and who to interview to verify his story. Speaking through an interpreter, he volunteered the names of people, places and even tea-houses. It has since been claimed by activists, lawyers and minor celebrities who have embraced the Bakhtiyari cause that I and the late Alastair McLeod, a freelance journalist retained by The Australian to make the same trip, went to the wrong place.

I went to Charkh because that was where Ali Bakhtiyari told me he came from and where he directed me to go. It was also where Roqia insisted she came from in her first record of interview and during her appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal. The phrase Ali used in his conversation with me was: "I am from Uruzgan province, Shahrestan district and Charkh village." Nothing could be clearer.

On arriving in Afghanistan I contacted the United Nations, which has the most comprehensive and detailed maps of Afghanistan, and the Afghan transitional government's department of the interior to pinpoint Charkh. There is only one Charkh in Uruzgan and that is where I took a team of experienced interpreters, including one from Time magazine who had covered the war and one from Australia who had worked for Immigration and ACM before quitting in the wake of the Government's refugee policies. Our guide was Mohammad Jan Peicar, a Hazara schoolteacher who had taught in the Charkh Chaprasak district since 1992 and was clearly a respected local figure.

It is now a matter of record that we found no trace of the Bakhtiyaris in Charkh or the district. It is also a matter of record that when Ali Bakhtiyari was confronted with this during a telephone conversation with two of The Sunday Age interpreters and a village elder, he suddenly and quite inexplicably changed his story, claiming that he came first from Charkh Nolije and then Charkh Chaprasak before hanging up. A search of both villages turned up no trace of the Bakhtiyaris.

What is not known is that since my visit, the Karzai Government has dispatched a mission to exactly the same area at the request of migration agents AMPI, representing Roqia Bakhtiyari, and also found no trace of the family ever having lived there or in the district. The Afghan embassy in Canberra has confirmed this.

Last year I went to Baxter and interviewed the Bakhtiyari boys and their father over three days. The boys were disturbed and upset. Alamdar had been classified as a potential runaway and he was showing signs that years of institutionalisation were seriously affecting his emotional state, which I wrote about with Ali's permission.

I also took with me photos of Charkh, of the imam and the village elders for Ali and his family to identify. While I agreed to treat our conversation as off the record until Ali's status in Australia was resolved, I can say I heard nothing from him to persuade me that any of my conclusions had been wrong.

It must be said, and it is something seldom discussed by those campaigning for the release of the Bakhtiyaris, that Roqia has a profound credibility problem. In her record of interview and before the tribunal she contradicted herself on numerous occasions. Much of her account of life in Charkh, such as not knowing the name of the Afghan currency, not knowing the names of nearby towns and not being able to cite the years in the Afghan calendar in which her children were born, was implausible. Indeed, Hazara women I interviewed in Charkh were amused by these claims.

Tribunal member Genevieve Hamilton concluded: "The tribunal as constituted usually avoids commenting on an applicant's overall credibility. But in this case the applicant's credibility was remarkably poor.

"The primary applicant is not an Afghan national. The tribunal is not satisfied that the applicants have a well-founded fear of persecution in Afghanistan."

Surprisingly, Roqia has refused to co-operate in any meaningful way with immigration authorities in their bid to establish her identity. She has, however, approached the Afghan embassy in Canberra to investigate her claim that she is an Afghan national. This will take several weeks to process. To make the issue of her identity even more complicated, a man has mysteriously stepped forward in another remote corner of Afghanistan to claim that he is Roqia's nephew.

It is surprising that Ali and Roqia have brothers and sisters, and in Ali's case a mother, still living in Afghanistan and Iran, yet nobody has been able to locate them, not even the two teams of lawyers acting for the family. Evidence from family members as to their true identity would be overwhelming. Only recently have lawyers for Ali Bakhtiyari approached the Afghan embassy in Canberra for help.

Much of the legal effort waged on behalf of the Baktiyaris has gone into a series of costly legal appeals that have failed, and a campaign to discredit Government claims that they are Pakistani nationals.

Behind the scenes, the tactics have been borderline. On one occasion, an affidavit was sent to The Sunday Age interpreter on the Afghanistan assignment with suggested answers to questions. The same interpreter has also been harassed late at night and early in the morning by an activist closely linked to the Bakhtiyari lawyers urging him to renounce the veracity of his work and reports.

For the record, I have never asserted that the Bakhtiyaris are Pakistanis. In years of researching and exploring their claims, I have never made a definitive statement about their nationality, and there is good reason for that.

The Pakistan-Afghanistan border is porous. At least 5 million people have crossed back and forth across it in a quarter of a century of civil war. I have met Afghans returning to Kabul who have lived and worked in Pakistan for 25 years. Their children speak with Pakistani accents, yet they are accepted without a blink as Afghans.

THE fate of the Bakhtiyaris now rests with Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone. With all avenues of legal appeal exhausted and an Immigration Act that requires her to remove asylum seekers who have no valid claim for refugee status, plus documentation from the Pakistani Government that the Bakhtiyaris are Pakistani nationals, her options are severely limited.

She could exercise ministerial discretion and grant the family visas on compassionate grounds, acknowledging that they are Pakistani but also that there is plenty of evidence that they have sustained much emotional damage, and the children cannot be held responsible for their parents' mistakes.

But that would be to create not so much a precedent but a new avenue of appeal for hundreds of other cases, many with far more compelling histories. Does the family that comes from the killing fields of Darfur or a Korean family that has arrived in Australia illegally to obtain specialised health care for a terminally ill child have less claim to Australian citizenship than the Bakhtiyaris?

For Senator Vanstone, the issue is also complicated by the fact that the Bakhtiyaris are a reminder - even an emblem - of Mr Ruddock's controversial period as immigration minister, where compromise was regarded as weakness or an admission that the Government's tough stand on mandatory detention was flawed. Senator Vanstone says the decision has been made, but declines to say when the family will be removed to Pakistan.

Link to the article in The Age

Skelton and the Bakhtiyari family

25 Dec 2004
Letter to The Age

My name is Marilyn Shepherd, an independent and unpaid researcher who became interested in the horrible way the Bakhtiyari children had been treated by Australia while in detention, and I have followed the case through all the court cases since July 2002 when the Family court started.

I heard the trauma these children had suffered, the suicide attempts and the desperate fears for their safety and the pleas of lawyers to have them released from a punitive type of detention that was slowly killing them. They were two young boys and I remember seeing the pictures of Monty at Easter and now knowing who that boy was but knowing it was wrong. When the boys were taken from Woomera in June 2002 by cowards and fools I was sickened by the lack of interest in their welfare that was shown by the Australian public and the government. Their plight has further been deemed by Sev Ozdowski to have been cruel, inhuman and degrading and it doesn't get any better.

The subsequent stories in the Australian and the AGE seemed all wrong to me somehow. It was as if the journalists felt thwarted in their quest so they decided to vilify the family as liars and frauds. It always struck me as odd that these journalists could get into the centre of Oruzgan when food aid convoys could not and when all the reports showed there was no functioning road, which is why the food convoys could not get in. I had cut the map drawn by the Australian and published on 26 July 2002, obviously the one I have referred to and the one Bob Ellis also was referring too, and the subsequent maps which show that McLeod was only barely inside Oruzgan and in fact was close to the Bamian border.

The map produced in the AGE of 23 August [2002] shows that Skelton went to the same place but shows that while the Australian couldn't find any town called Nolije, Skelton did but I cannot. I have searched hundreds of maps since then and still cannot find it. I also cannot understand why the Australian went to the left of the village they call Charkh and Skelton went right but claims to have been in the same place. I have pointed out the maps to Skelton many times including sending them by fax to him from the Adelaide office of the AGE at 13.59pm on the 21st December. Included in that was a map showing clearly a village called Quetta in Afghanistan and I have the fax transmission sheet.

I sent the copies of the maps to Andra Jackson and Meagan Shaw on the day I was interviewed by Andra for the article appearing in the AGE last Monday.

Sadly for the Bakhtiyari family Russell has now confirmed that he was with Ali the day the map was drawn, which includes the teashop at the border of Ghazni and Oruzgan in the centre of Afghanistan. I feel sure the archives of the Australian and the AGE will find those maps and then ask why Russell would send Ministry of the Interior officials to the same wrong place and expect them to confirm the presence of a family who have never been there.

I have also attended all the court cases for Ali Bakhtiyari and heard the following in the cases of SHJB and STKB, easily accessible on the Austill website to confirm.

At the first case if was acknowledged by Justice Selway that the evidence from Pakistan was negligible, that information from 2 eyewitnesses from Afghanistan was ignored, the two language tests from experts accepted by the Federal court stated clearly that Ali and Roqia both only spoke Afghan Hazaragi, that the governor of Shahrestan province had confirmed the family's Afghan origins in September 2002, three months before his visa was cancelled and that what was relied on was unsubstantiated and untested reports in the newspapers. The member was also given Ali's official Taskara which Justice Hayne could not find to be considered anything but genuine as recently as 13 December. In fact, as Andra Jackson has reported Justice Hayne stated clearly, I was in the court, that there is an arguable case that the family are all Afghan citizens as they claim.

Ali lost the appeal because the privative clause does not allow for the review of facts, only for the review of judicial error. As I have said it is easily verified on the legal cases website.

Having done that last year I searched on the Refugee Review Tribunal website using the word "cancel" to see how many Afghan refugees had their visas cancelled. I figured if the reports were correct there would be about 700 of them trying to get visas back. Imagine my shock when I only found a handful. The first was in February 2003 when RRT member Chris Keher decided the visa had been illegally cancelled, it seems the refugee did not receive the notice of intent to cancel.

Then there was one with Kim Rosser in April 2003 where she was pretty certain that dobbers should not be given much credence and that the picture on the so-called Pakistani document was brighter and newer than the rest of the thing and in any case it was only a photo copy, the refugee had never had it in his hands, never used it and did not know the person. He got his visa back.

In May 2003 member Giles Short had another one and again the Pakistani documents were discarded as smugglers documents but not the applicants documents. October 2003 saw Bruce McCarthy decide again in favour of the refugee because he deemed the documents to be false, and in October this year another one came up and used Ali's case SHJB to prove this cancellation was false - Mila Males finally was the one who wondered out loud who it was that was making the leap of faith to match documents with different names and family members to particular refugees and why. It was published in full on Margo Kingston's webdiary the day after I found it.

It should be pointed out that Giles Short was the second RRT member to see Ali's case and conceded that the picture on the document could not safely be stated to be the applicant. This was also aired in the full federal court case which I attended this year.

Having seen the documents used against Ali I can say they are in a different name, it is just a photocopy from something, it is unsigned, unauthenticated and has no wetstamp on it, just as Kim Rosser described in her case. It was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 10 2004 that Penelope Debelle has investigated these documents and had expert advice from Hassan Ghulam and this was published again in the AGE after the dawn raid on the family last weekend.

Senator Bartlett has questioned the RRT extensively over these Pakistani documents over the last year, largely at my behest, and discovered that the RRT routinely throw even genuine Afghan documents in the bin but they know the Pakistani documents are false, just old smugglers documents photocopied and sent to Canberra from Indonesia. Again readily available in the estimates transcripts of 27 May 2004.

It has also been extensively reported that the lawyers, with whom I have no official status at all as I informed Russell this week, that the governors of Shahrestan and Jaghouri have confirmed the family are from those districts, that Mahzar Ali has been interviewed by the Norwegian Refugee council who would have no reason to lie to the authorities here or there and that they have seen his voter registration card, British library records that Ali's father was in the Afghan Hazara pioneers and other official documents.

I believe these are with the Afghan embassy, along with the Pakistani documents well known now to be bogus and not Ali Bakhtiyari. They have also been lodged with the UN for judgement.

Earlier this year I phoned the interpreter whom Russell Skelton took to Afghanistan and he willingly provided the information that he was in Woomera working with ACM and was with Alamdar when he drew somewhat spontaneously the terrible picture of the Taliban cutting off his friends head. The interpreter told me absolutely that the family were Afghani and all I did was describe the maps to him suggesting they were in entirely the wrong place and told him the information that I had heard in the courts. I was astonished recently to find his CV stating that his trip with Skelton to Afghanistan was for the purpose of "giving project advice to the people of Charkh" and that he simultaneously worked for a number of different groups including DIMA [Australian Department of Immigration].

Dr Marie O'Niell, the ACM psychologist was also with them and gave extensive evidence to the HREOC hearings in July 2002, again that is readily available on the Human Rights website for anyone who cares to look.

I was left with the impression the interpreter was a truly good and decent man and certainly Roqia and the children think of him very fondly, he shares a name with Roqia's surviving uncle who lives in Jaghouri.

Now we get to Roqia and I don't understand what Skelton is doing or saying about her. The only "evidence" before Hamilton was the language analysis that said she spoke Dari Hazaragi with an Urdu accent. Roqia finds it highly amusing that she could possibly speak any language with an Urdu accent as Urdu is not an accent it is a language she cannot speak. Iranian friends and carers for the family have repeatedly stated that Roqia does not speak Urdu at all, and this was also reported in the AGE at the time the boys were turned into the British consulate.

Before the computer crashed in August 2002 and wiped out many RRT decisions Roqia's was available and I read it over and over again. The language test claims she speaks Herawi so I asked some Afghan friends what Herawi was and was told it does not exist. Again it was off to the google and sure enough it doesn't exist, anyone could do such simple tasks and come up with the same answer. Even if it meant Herati, that is a dialect spoken only in Herat in Afghanistan and not in Pakistan. In any case the AGE has reported extensively that the tests are discredited on every level and the courts deemed many cases to be incorrect when they only hang on the tests.

The AGE has also used quotes from the first lawyer, and I have used them myself in letters, that it could not be said the applicant was a national of Afghanistan but nor could it be said she was a national of Pakistan. In many other cases the benefit of the doubt was given to the applicant if that was the major evidence. I remember reading as well that the same test said Roqia's brother is from Afghanistan.

It is outrageous to me as a close friend of this family that on the eve of the wrongful deportation by force to the wrong country Skelton would still seek to be self-serving and hope that the distortions will go unchallenged. Maybe Russell should have asked Roqia at some point about Mahzar Ali and he would find out that he is Roqia's brother and he has recently sent photos from Afghanistan that I have seen. Their mother looks just like Mahzar and is alive and well in what is left of the village of Chaqu in central Oruzgan. The area is still drought stricken as Russell noted in 2002 but it wasn't in 1998 when the family left there. All that is left standing is a house or two, a few stringy old cows and scraggly ducks. Ali's mother was there, Roqia's mother and much younger brother and sister.

As Roqia is the oldest at just 34 it would be impossible to have an adult nephew, but I can state under oath that I was with Roqia when her uncle rang from Jaghouri to say that officials, including a white person, had shown her photo and it has been verified. If Russell had interviewed Roqia as I suggested on Tuesday he would know that her father was Yusef and that he died about 3 years ago.

If Russell stopped relying on people no-one can question like Jan Peicar, and concentrated more on reading the investigations carried out by his colleagues, if he spoke to Roqia who speaks English with a beautiful soft Afghan accent and simply asked her maybe this family would not be in the mess they are now.

There is no value in saying that Peicar was a teacher in Charkh as the children didn't go to school, and it is a bit like asking us to accept that a teacher in the south of SA should be able to identify a student in the north based on nothing but a photo.

Variously over the past two years the Murdoch and Fairfax media have claimed that Ali Bakhtiyari, simple and illiterate farmer from Afghanistan is Haja Ali Asighar, fitter from Kuwait or Pakistan or Iran or Ali Bakhtiyari or Asghar Ali or Skelton's claim in September 2002, Haji Asquar from Saudi Arabia. If this simple farmer was such a wealthy plumber/electrician/gasfitter/shopowner from Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, depending on the day and month, surely he would not have to claim he is a simple Afghan refugee.

He would have been a welcome rich migrant and asked to "jump the queue" with his wife and children who would surely have been literate as well when they arrived. Roqia proudly showed me in September that she had just learnt to sign her name and was wanting to get the records from the government to explain how her little baby could have been registered as a Pakistani national while she and Ali maintain they are Afghans and have been in detention the entire time.

The request was sent in September by the lawyers at her request and with my assistance, I readily acknowledge that and to date Roqia has not received an answer.

Perhaps Russell would like to visit the ChilOut site and read the terrible report of the raid on the house, read how the little one was left in her own urine all the way to Port Augusta, how the oldest girl was gripped by the arms and marched out to the car and how the baby was not allowed a nappy change or a bottle. He could read the long statement issued by Nick Poynder showing the Afghan evidence collected and then ask this.

"If the Pakistani ID has been deemed to be false and reported to the government in June, the so-called children's ID is false as it is based on his false ID alone there is no longer any basis for the Pakistani claims. I saw the letter handed to the High Court and there is nothing on it so show a photo registration of the baby or permission from the parents, indeed Justice Hayne appeared to set it aside as irrelevant.

Another search shows that the Pakistani government are very fussy and require many photos, written permission from the husband or father of the mother, and that all members of the family must have their own ID number.

This is not an opinion piece, it is a piece I have written many times, which Skelton seems to have read when he questioned me about it. It is based entirely on internet research, attendance at the many futile court cases and a deep and abiding love for a family who have been badly wronged by my Government and the media.

The government could have avoided all the court cases for Roqia and the children, could have saved taxpayers about $13 million in detention costs, could have saved the physical and mental health of 5 young children and avoided one scandal after the other if they had only had the decency to tell her Ali was here. Every single other mother who came later was released years ago and many of them are now permanent residents of Australia having done the same as Roqia.

Indeed as Ali's visa ran out on August 2003 it seems deranged that they cancelled it in December 2002, three months after they had Afghan verification and almost 3 years after he was ASIO cleared, to subject Ali to the two MRT hearings I have found, 2 RRT hearings that I attended the court for, three hearings in the federal court to prevent his transfer to Baxter, 2 further federal court cases and two Full Federal court hearings and a High court appeal and the children to the Family court and the subsequent High court and almost 4 years in detention.

Smugglers who brought Roqia and the children were sent back to Indonesia in 2002 after a short stint in prison but Roqia has been locked up for 4 years based on nothing more than a language that doesn't exist supplied by a discredited company and a lack of knowledge of a calendar. A calendar is utterly useless to an illiterate woman and it has been accepted time and again that the human rights violations against women in Afghanistan are grotesque. Little wonder they won't talk about them.

Sadness, grief, pain and sorrow are my chief feelings as I read Skelton's latest article. I am the person he refers to rather obliquely so I know he received the fax. In the fax I demanded he not quote me as he had said he would. It is sad that he had the evidence in his hands to show clearly the journalists were in the wrong place, probably by accident, and chose to ignore it.

The children will continue to suffer, if sent to either Pakistan or Afghanistan Nagina will be forced to marry at 13 or so, have babies one after the other, be denied any education or rights and so will the other two girls. Their thirst for education and knowledge will wither on the vine of trying to survive with nothing of their own and the hopeful belief that he could be a lawyer will die unborn for Monty, Alamdar's engineering dream will go the same way, down the drain.

And it could have been avoided if the government had told Roqia in February 2001 that Ali was here. A point acknowledged by the government in the High Court and in subsequent statements has been "if you come without authority you don't have family reunion", which in the final analysis is what it was all about.

Thank you Russell for showing us all how ugly we are, and thank you Fairfax for allowing Russell to continue publishing statements that can never be checked. The poor lawyers here simply cannot afford the wild goose chase required to do what Fairfax could.

Marilyn Shepherd
Kensington SA

See also this page | First Bakhtiyari Report | Second Bakhtiyari Report | Deportation Report


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