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Philip Ruddock's advice on how to enter Australia from the Nauru detention centre
Philip Ruddock to asylum seeker: 'If you can polevault the razor wire, sprint to the beach, and swim to Australia, in a good time, we'd be proud to have you'. Thanks to Nicholson cartoons.

American Torture, Aussie Style

"How did the detention of asylum seekers spill over into a system of brutality with more in common with torture than respect for human rights?"

"How did a country which has prided itself on lining up to sign onto the International conventions so wilfully breach them?"

These are the questions Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre asks herself while reading Michael Otterman's book American Torture, and she ponders:

"Perhaps a country with no legally enshrined protection for human rights was leaving itself open to political manipulation. It seems that while common law protects the rights of the citizen, there was no law to protect the right of the non-citizen."

Ms Curr then sends the essay to the author of American Torture, Michael Otterman, and the writing is duly received. We're reprinting the essay here.

Michael Otterman comments about the essay on his Blog (now deleted):

Michael Otterman, American Torture

Wednesday, Febr 20, 2008 - I recently received a stirring essay from Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne. Curr identified numerous parallels between American "no touch" physical and psychological torture techniques and methods employed in Australian immigration prisons. Since the early 1990s, Australia has enforced a strict mandatory detention policy of all asylum seekers that arrive illegally. According to former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser - a vocal critic of current policy - mandatory detention:

" indeed in breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would seem to be in breach of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. This view is supported by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. It is also in breach of the Convention of Rights of the Child. Current practice runs counter to UNHCR guidelines on detention. Australia is seriously out of step in these matters."

American Torture - Aussie Style website
by Pamela Curr, Campaign Coordinator,
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Melbourne

My father had a rawhide whip which his father had brought from Africa. He told us that it was a symbol of man's inhumanity to man. As young children even before we really knew what the words meant, we knew that this whip was a thing of dread.

Reading Michael Otterman's book 'American Torture' reminded me of this early lesson in human rights abuse.

Otterman's book details the journey of American torture and interrogation techniques from their covert operation phase in the late 50's to the overt operations of today. The analysis is chilling in that it details the evidence of doctors and psychologists working with military and intelligence agencies in experimenting on human beings to explore the limits of their endurance. It is a step by step guide detailing how spirits were broken and lives were lost in the search for a mythical magic formula which would wring information from the 'enemy'.

The journey is a repugnant one for anyone with a belief in the preciousness of human rights. It helps to explain how the cruelty in Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo was condoned and encouraged. This debasement of human rights can be seen as a ever increasing circle of man's inhumanity to man. Techniques were assembled into programs such as the Phoenix program, D.D.D. (Debility, Dependency and Dread) to SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). These techniques most recently employed in Guantanamo, were specifically designed to 'convince the detainee that death or severely painful consequences are imminent for him or his family'. Lead up techniques included 'yelling, painful stress positioning, isolation for up to 30 days at a time, 24 hour interrogation and using detainees individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce cooperation by weakening the detainee's mental and physical ability to resist'.

The details of the methods used bear a chilling similarity to methods used in Australia's immigration detention regime. Let me state at the outset that I am not saying that people detained in the Australian detention camps and centres were subject to the same torture or interrogation as those prisoners of the American government officials in Iraq, Afghanistan or Cuba. What I am saying however is that an analysis of the practices and methods used in the detention centres reveals disturbing patterns of similarity to those methods employed by the American government to get information from those suspected of being terrorists or of having information about terrorists.

While torture is employed by American officials to extract information, harsh aggressive methods were used in Australian detention centres with the officially expressed intention of pressuring long term detainees to sign forms agreeing to 'voluntarily' leave Australia. This later measure was revealed in a leaked memo in which John Okley, a senior immigration bureaucrat said 'the key to ensuring voluntary departure lies in the creation of a credible threat of involuntary removal'.

When we consider that asylum seekers in detention centres have committed no crime and are seeking protection from a country namely Australia, which is signatory to the Refugee Convention, we are left asking if 'credible threat' was the only reason for asylum seekers being exposed to these methods. What concerns us here is the question as to the origin of the processes governing the detention of asylum seekers. Were the American methods of torture and interrogation adapted specifically for use on people seeking asylum in Australia? Is this the result of the contract between the Australian government and Wackenhut, the American prison security company which traded as Australasian Corrections Management (ACM) to employ the guards and deliver the detention services in Australian camps?

There are striking similarities between the treatment of so-called terrorist suspects in American facilities and asylum seekers in Australian facilities. Some of these are described below:


Otterman writes that isolation is extensively used in all American facilities and that its effects were profound. It was employed after expert psychiatric and psychological opinions found that it constituted an effective method of breaking down the human spirit such that the detainee would comply with whatever was asked of them to end the isolation. He quotes David Hicks in a letter to his father, 'I feel as though I am teetering on the edge of losing my sanity after such a long ordeal - the last year of it being in isolation.' The American interrogators believed that isolation before interrogation was particularly effective in eliciting information.

Isolation of various types was extensively used on asylum seekers throughout Australian IDC's. A form of isolation used on asylum seekers when they first arrived is called 'Separation Detention'. This kept detainees isolated and separated while denying them access to news of any kind from the outside world. They were not allowed to mix with anyone except those with whom they had arrived nor were they allowed even one phone call home to tell their families that they had survived. One family told me recently that for 14 months their families in Iraq thought that they had drowned and had held funerals for them in their absence. In Curtin IDC people were held for 11months without an interview or any word of their fate, inside a building with no access to outside air and light. Families with children were included in this practice. As recently as 2005 a teenager who had escaped a massacre in Darfur was held in a compound in Baxter for one week totally alone before being interviewed.

Solitary isolation in permanently lit or permanently dark cells was used for detainees who became distressed and suicidal. In Port Hedland one man was held for 63 days in a padded cell behind a heavy door seemingly for no reason other than as an example to others. Children were also locked up with their parents. One mother described having to teach her child how to use a plastic bag because guards would not let them go to the toilet. Isolation was used at Woomera and Baxter as well as the city centres.

Another man who was on a UN communication list as the youngest prisoner in the notorious Evin prison in Iran, was placed in isolation for 3 months. He relates being allowed out of the cell for 30 minutes each day only. This system of isolation detention was documented and formalised in Baxter. Juliet block in Port Hedland was extensively used to isolate detainees who organised themselves into a committee in order to have more effective communication with Immigration officials (then called DIMA, then DIMIA and now called DIAC).

Global Solutions Limited (GSL) replaced Australian Correctional Management (ACM), a subsidiary of Wackenhut as the private contract service provider. They formalised the punishment regime at Baxter by introducing a written contract for detainees to sign when they were placed in RED ONE for punishment. This was done with no reference to an independent authority or any monitoring. This contract detailed the number of hours in solitary, fresh air, number of weeks they were to be locked in RED ONE as well as punishments to be exacted if a detainee failed to abide by the rules. Cornelia Rau was subjected to this regime even though she was psychotic and so ill that she was not able to understand, much less obey the complex rules. One benefit of this formalisation process was that the written contract was smuggled out, providing proof that isolation was being used both as a punishment and in lieu of psychological treatment despite the Immigration Minister's claims that detention was purely administrative and not punitive.


Subjecting detainees to intense cold has been used extensively by American intelligence services in South America. An American missionary in Brazil, who was arrested and subjected to this treatment as part of the torture process before interrogation, relates that it results in a nervous breakdown. It is eerie that in Baxter, many detainees who were locked up in the Management Unit (isolation cells) reported that if they refused to eat, the air conditioning was turned up in their cells. Since many were stripped and wearing only a short cotton gown, they shivered for hours. Where did the guards at Baxter get the idea to use this method of punishment to induce compliance which in this case meant to pressure detainees to stop their hunger strike?

Sudden Transfers and Removals

As early as 1958, CIA literature on the treatment of suspects, advised early morning shock arrests as part of the 'softening up process'. According to expert opinion 'the arrest should take the subject by surprise and should impose on him the greatest possible degree of mental discomfort…when his physical and mental resistance is at its lowest'. This was used in South America and other countries where CIA operatives were active.

Otterman in American Torture writes that 'dread is crucial to the interrogation process because it induces regression'. Dread, fear and anxiety were extensively used 'to strengthen the subject's tendencies towards compliance'. It is hard to understand why this process was used on innocent asylum seekers in Australian IDC's except if we remember the concept of 'credible threat' to induce agreement to voluntarily removal.

Many long term detainees were 'extracted' and moved from one detention centre to another with no prior warning. Detainees in Port Hedland and Woomera would be woken before dawn by guards shaking them and shouting that they were being moved. I met 3 Iranian men who had been subjected to this treatment in 2003. They were woken and taken out of Port Hedland in their pyjama shorts and t-shirts with nothing on their feet. They were flown to Perth and then on a domestic flight to Melbourne. They said how cold and de-humanising it was to arrive in Melbourne in May in this state.

Another method was to call a detainee over the loud speaker to the office on some pretext and then to grab them for removal without allowing them to return to collect personal possessions or say goodbye. This unsettled everyone and created fear. It also reminded those who came from countries where disappearances are routine, how vulnerable they were. Deportation is the great fear. No one was sure if the detainee was being transferred or deported. Often it would be days before this could be established.

For weeks in Port Hedland in 2002, no one would go to Medical because of the fear that they would be seized and deported, after one man disappeared. I have a list of names sent to me by detainees who had not requested an appointment with the doctor but whose names are on a list with times to attend. They believed that this was a deportation or removals list. For weeks fear haunted the camp.

Threats and Lies

Late in 2003 Minister Ruddock negotiated an MOU with Iran. He then instructed DIMA to tell all Iranians in detention that they had 28 days to sign to voluntarily go back or that they would be forcibly returned. At the same time John Okely, a senior bureaucrat in DIMA advised how to persuade the Iranians to go back voluntarily in an official Minute to the Minister Ruddock. 'The Department's experience suggests that for all but the hard-core detainees, the key to ensuring voluntary departure lies in the creation of a credible threat of involuntary removal'. Detainees were called up day after day and told to sign.

Detention policies by 2003 were aimed at getting people to leave. An immigration spokesperson told the Senate that, 'They are being told that they can either co-operate now or wait until they are forced to go. Staying is not an option. This point is being made very forcefully, you can be assured of that." Rules and conditions changed daily and became selectively punitive. Food deteriorated, access to medical support was subject to lengthy delays as people's mental and physical health deteriorated. People were carted off to Management Unit, a forerunner to RED ONE for minor infringements of the rules or when they became distressed. This angered and upset people in all the compounds. Anxiety levels rose and detainees became stressed.

Easy Way of Hard Way

According to an affidavit lodged by David Hicks when he was told that if he co-operated he would be sent home after the interrogations. He was told that there was 'an easy way' and 'a hard way'. Curiously this is the same phrase used repeatedly to detainees in Australian Immigration Detention Centres (IDC's) often at the point of transfer from one camp to another or at point of deportation and removal. A Sri Lankan man deported in 2005 from Villawood told me that he was repeatedly punched as he was grabbed in his room prior to being put on a plane. He was then told that there was 'an easy or a hard way' and asked which it was to be. This threat is so commonly used that it is hard to believe that it comes out of thin air.


We have all seen media footage of hooded men in orange suits, shackled together and shuffling across tarmacs. In 2002 an FBI agent reported an incident with a Guantanamo detainee in which the methods of restraint were incidentally described. These included handcuffs and the use of a waist shackling belt. Such belts were introduced in Baxter in 2003 for use on detainees who were assessed as suicidal. People in this condition had their hands shackled to a waist belt before being put in an isolation cell in the Management Unit (MU) in Baxter. Sometimes feet were also cuffed and a head guard used to stop distressed mentally ill patients banging their heads against the wall. The aim was suicide prevention not treatment. At this time mental illness was not treated in hospital, detainees exhibiting such symptoms were deemed to be 'playing up'.

In a report on Australian conditions the United Nations Association noted 'ongoing violence in institutional living appears to be accepted as the norm' by the government. While the Immigration Detention Standards (IDS) state that 'only such force as is reasonably necessary and proportionate in the circumstances to be used'. No attempt is made to define how this instrument is to be interpreted. With limited monitoring of private contractors, there are few limits to the restraints employed.

A mother who was flown from Perth to Port Hedland with her husband and children was handcuffed to her plane seat. Her 3 year old daughter wept throughout the flight in fear and the mother told how she was unable even to hold her child to comfort her.

Forced Nudity and Strip Searching

In 2001 Minister Ruddock sought powers to strip search children as young as 10 years. The Senate refused but allowed strip searching of adult detainees. This opened the door for a most effective method of control. At various times strip searching was carried out with excuses that guards were looking for weapons. After the Woomera fires strip searching was extensive as part of a policy to pressure the Iranians to go home. At first the men were not able to speak of this indignity. They said things such as 'they have taken my spirit'. Then slowly it came out that they were being asked to take off their underpants, bend over and stand with their legs apart while guards roughly examined their genitals.

During 2003 time an immigration official admitted that the Iranians had been strip-searched 6 times. I remember talking to one young man from Africa who told me that he had refused to take off his underwear and so was placed in a room all day. Police and guards came in every hour and asked him if he would strip. He refused hour after hour. He told me that he decided that no matter what they did to him he could not strip. He said that he was shaking and sick when they came after 10 hours. They patted him down and let him go. Two days later he signed to leave the country. They could not send him to his own country so they sent him to Syria on a 6 weeks travel document. There he knew no-one and had never even visited. He would be illegal in Syria within 6 weeks with no passport to go anywhere else. I met him at Tullamarine for a few minutes on his way through. He was a broken man.

In 2004 guards went a room in a compound in Baxter. There they crowded into a room where a young man was lying asleep on his bed. They pulled off his underpants and held him face down. He later reported that something hard and cold was forced into his rectum. He complained to the Police liaison officer in Baxter who after viewing the camera footage said that he saw no evidence so the matter was closed. This boy also complained to the Ombudsman's office and the Human Rights Commissioner. I rang the priest at Port Augusta seeking advice. He told me that he saw the boy after the incident. He said, 'I believe him'. He said that he saw him after the incident and the boy had told him what happened. I made an official written complaint to the Human Rights Commissioner and spoke to him about my concern that the guard who allegedly assaulted this boy was still in the compound on duty.

Two months later another detainee who was recently released, described what had happened in the room next to his at Baxter. He described guards coming, banging and shouting next door and how he was told to get into his room and close his door. He told me that after some time he saw the man in the next room to his, carried out of his room face down, held by his arms and legs- naked. When they got to the end of the veranda, a towel was thrown across his bare buttocks. I then realised that he was describing the same event. Nothing was ever done about this assault. The young man was released from detention and given a visa. There is no way complaints by detainees, witnessed only by detainees are ever taken seriously. The only assault for which a guard was charged was one inadvertently witnessed by 3 chaplains at Baxter.

For the first few years, guards rotated between the detention centres and the prison system. There was no difference in the expectations and treatment of asylum seekers who had committed no crime and prisoners who had. Asylum seekers reminded us that while they did not know how long they would be locked up, prisoners at least had the luxury of knowing. Asylum seekers also deeply resented the way they were treated and the lack of respect shown to them as human beings. 'We are not animals' was a constant refrain. The guards on the other hand resented these people and treated them as criminals, having been constantly told that they were 'illegals'. In these conditions anger festered like a weeping sore. Both were setup to play out scenes skilfully orchestrated by dark political forces. All the while spin doctors stayed on message with media releases and letters pouring forth denials such as this one in March 2002 from Stewart Foster, then Director of Public affairs for DIMIA: 'There are no 'punishment cells' in our detention centres'.

In January 2001 six Federal MPs visited Port Hedland and enquired about isolation detention in Juliet block after the Department insisted that solitary confinement is not used in detention centres. Labor MP Roger Price said, 'Even when we went to Juliet ACM officials were denying everything. It is only when we went upstairs that we found people were incarcerated there.' According to a report in The Australian (12 October 2002), the MPs reported that 'Juliet block would break every building code in the country. The cells were dark. Detainees were locked up 23 out of 24 hours a day. There was a 'disgusting' ablutions block the men were allowed to use only one at a time (so that some claimed that they were forced to defecate in their cells)'.

* * * * * *

The question is how did the detention of asylum seekers spill over into a system of brutality with more in common with torture than respect for human rights? How did a country which has prided itself on lining up to sign onto the International conventions so wilfully breach them? Perhaps a country with no legally enshrined protection for human rights was leaving itself open to political manipulation. It seems that while common law protects the rights of the citizen, there was no law to protect the right of the non-citizen.

There were lawyers who certainly tested the law as far as they could to squeeze a modicum of humanity from it but at every step of the way the coalition government dragged these human rights defenders all the way to the High Court where such inconceivable decisions as the enshrinement of the right of the government to detain (imprison) a person for his whole life without trial was handed down. The rights of children of non citizens were placed in the hands of the minister who imprisoned them. The Family Court whose jurisdiction was the welfare of children in Australia could not intervene on behalf of the children of asylum seekers. Not for these children the protection of the courts. They were subjected to the systems abuse of a punitive government. And what of the people highly placed in the human rights organisations and instruments set up to monitor government power? While they would eloquently articulate human rights, little was done when evidence of transgression was laid before them. The Courts were seemingly castrated by a powerful government which deftly promoted the silent and surgically removed those who raised their voices in dissent.

This descent into hell continued until a blonde, blue-eyed, ex Qantas air hostess was found locked up in isolation in the Baxter hellhole. At this point all hell broke loose. Journalists discovered detention centres. Television and radio resonated with tales of trauma. And detention was exposed. Politicians apologised, albeit only to the blonde, blue-eyed woman who was too ill and traumatised by the brutality of her incarceration to know or care. It took her family to speak out and remind Australians that it was not only their beloved sister and daughter who had suffered in the hell hole but many others who had no loving Australian families to rescue them.

In the end it was not the children, hunger striking and sewing their lips together, nor the babies head-banging in despair which moved the hard Aussie hearts but the air hostess who broke the spell. At this point it was threats from a few souls on the governments own team who broke ranks and insisted that children must be released with their mothers and fathers and the long term detained must be freed. And so it was that they came through the locked gates, staring like frightened rabbits caught in headlights, struggling towards a freedom that they had lost and forgotten. Some adjusted and found their way, again with no help from the government which had perpetrated abuses against them. Others have struggled and are still struggling. Their nights are full of terror, dreaming 'that DIMIA will come and get me - in the daytime I know it is over but at night I keep remembering'.

Those who came from countries places where they had been tortured and who were then subjected to detention suffer most of all. It is hard to accept that these tortured people were locked up in solitary when their pain grew too great for them to bear. A teenager with the bones in his hand smashed by an iron bar sat in his room in Baxter for months rocking back and forth in terror. He was ignored by DIMIA and GSL guards. It was a detainee family who fed him and cared for him. It was detainees who notified advocates about the depth of his pain and ensured his release. The DIMIA officer who assessed and refused this boy, wrote in his file that it was clear that he had been tortured. By 2005, guards and DIMIA staff were so immune to the distress of asylum seekers that nothing moved them. Tortured and torturers sharing the same secret space. How could we expect these guards and officers to know the boundaries where torture begins when they could so readily disregard the visible evidence and pain of the tortured.

Now as 2007 draws to a close, a fourth detention centre has closed although not because of a change of heart from Government. Hundreds of soldiers are camped on the hill above Baxter Detention Centre waiting to move in. They are in training to go to Afghanistan as part of the coalition of the willing. In the ultimate irony they will sleep in the same rooms where young Afghanis who fled the Taliban, were locked up. City detention centres will now house the dwindling number of asylum seekers. Here it is less likely that methods used in isolated camps will be allowed now.

However an even worse threat to human rights lurks. This is the half a billion dollar detention prison built on Christmas Island. Being 2,400 very expensive kilometres from Perth, public scrutiny has been reduced to a minimum. The tried and true techniques may well be resumed in this highest security establishment ever built on Australian territory. Its CCTV cameras beam into 'a remote control room' in Canberra. Its electric doors, fences and gates are designed to contain and break the human spirit. Its compounds even include a 'babies compound' with a nursery with 8 little cots lined up. In the adjoining rooms are wet and dry play areas and classrooms, all separated from the family compound. A hospital with 'resuscitation room' is located within the complex. People detained here need never leave unless the government wills it. Without access to Courts and judicial oversight, away from media and the public gaze, people will truly be at the mercy of guards and government. Will this be Australia's Guantanamo where the ultimate partnership with the American torture system is played out? The answer lies with the Australian citizenry. Will they defy, deny or just stand by?