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Informal talks with detainees raise legal alarm

Sydney Morning Herald

Thursday March 24, 2011

Kirsty Needham IMMIGRATION

LEGAL and refugee groups have expressed concern that Christmas Island detainees being questioned by police over last week's riots are not getting legal representation.Amid mounting political pressure for criminal charges to be laid, lawyers warned that a court threw out evidence against Sri Lankan asylum seekers charged over riots in 2009 because they had not taken legal advice before giving statements to police.There are no lawyers on Christmas Island, and yesterday two detainees charged with escaping were unable to be formally interviewed by police because the West Australian Legal Aid office could not provide a lawyer.A spokeswoman for the Australian Federal Police said the men had been encouraged by police to seek legal advice and were given contact details.No charges have yet been laid against detainees over the riots.Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition, said 150 detainees have been separated and held in the gym, and he claimed they were being informally questioned as the police sought to identify those responsible for the protests.Lawyers involved in the 2009 Sri Lankan case told the Herald they are concerned about that situation repeating itself.Nine Sri Lankan detainees who had required medical attention after the 2009 riot were interviewed by police as witnesses, and these statements led to them being charged. When cautioned during later formal interviews, the men did not request legal advice because they believed they had already answered similar questions.The November 2010 judgment in the Sri Lankan case slammed AFP video records of interviews as "poorly done and in most instances worthless". The judgment also said the men charged were not the riot ringleaders. Of 11 charged, three were convicted.Detective Superintendent Chris Lines said a separate AFP team was being brought to Christmas Island today to start the investigation into the protests."Potentially some of these people are facing serious charges and if they were being questioned on the mainland they would have much readier access to legal advice," said Greg Barnes, the director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance."You are talking about people who have very little if any understanding of how the legal system works in Australia and are often very frightened by the law and people in authority."Mr Barnes disputed a police view that legal advice only needed to be offered for formal interviews. "If you say something to a police officer that may be able to be used against you," he said.An Immigration Department spokesman declined to confirm whether interviewing by police had begun."If the department receives a request from a client for access to legal representation a phone call to the legal representative will be facilitated at the department's cost," the spokesman said."While clients are in immigration custody the department facilitates AFP access to clients for interviews, provides interview rooms and interpreters."The Commonwealth Ombudsman's office will send a team to Christmas Island next month, and a spokeswoman said staff would seek briefings from the AFP and the Immigration Department about the protests.The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, told Parliament all detainees were now secured inside the detention centre.

© 2011 Sydney Morning Herald

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